The police officer who killed distressed teen Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar nearly a decade ago is making a last-minute effort to have the shooting considered a “suicide by cop” at a coroner’s inquest, a move blasted as “outrageous” and “distasteful” by a succession of lawyers at a special hearing Wednesday.
A long-awaited coroner’s inquest into the high-profile shooting death was set to begin last week before an 11th hour-motion by the officer himself slammed the brakes just hours before the start time.
Documents made public Wednesday reveal that James Forcillo — the former police officer convicted in the 2013 fatal shooting of Yatim — is seeking to introduce evidence that Yatim may have “provoked a fatal police response,” committing what’s referred to as suicide by cop.
“A reasonable and, in our view likely, inference is that (Yatim’s) conduct was intentional and designed to provoke the outcome that ensued,” Bryan Badali, lawyer for Forcillo, argued before Dr. David Cameron, the coroner overseeing the mandatory inquest.
Forcillo fired nine times at Yatim inside a Toronto streetcar on July 27, 2013, after police were called to the scene because the teen pulled out a knife on the crowded streetcar and exposed himself. By the time Forcillo fired his weapon, Yatim was alone on the streetcar, and video showing him shooting at Yatim as he lay prone prompted widespread outrage.
The former officer was later convicted of attempted murder in Yatim’s death, sentenced to six years in prison, then granted full parole in 2020.
As part of the motion, Badali is seeking to introduce text messages and Google searches made by Yatim before the shooting — including a query he made about suicide seven months before he was killed — in order to aid the jury in understanding his state of mind.
The evidence, Bidali argued, would help the inquest jury determine the “manner” of his death — one of their central tasks (coroner’s inquest juries choose from homicide, suicide, natural, accidental or undetermined). Excluding evidence of the teen’s state of mind would “artificially tip the scales in favour of a homicide finding,” Badali wrote in the motion.
A coroner’s inquest is a non-criminal hearing held to determine the details of someone’s death and produce recommendations aimed at preventing further fatalities. Overseen by a coroner and heard by a jury of five citizens, inquests are mandatory in Ontario under certain circumstances, including when someone dies in police custody.
In a rare show of unity, a series of lawyers representing Yatim’s family, the Toronto police board, the police chief, the Ontario Solicitor General and a mental health organization — all parties to the inquest — urged Cameron to toss the motion. Many condemned that the move delayed a proceeding already put off by years due to the criminal trial and appeals.
“The Yatim family has suffered enough,” said Jonah Waxman, lawyer representing Yatim’s father and sister, calling it a “distasteful” motion to introduce “speculative” evidence.
In a statement read out by Waxman, Bill Yatim, Sammy’s father, said Forcillo’s attempts were an “effort to disgrace Sammy’s memory (that) only worsens my pain.”
“With this motion, Mr. Forcillo is pointing his finger at Sammy, when he already used the same finger on the trigger of his Glock, nine times,” Bill Yatim said.
Both Waxman and Asha James, the lawyer representing Yatim’s mother Sahar Bahadi, noted the motion was brought at the 11th hour — filed at 1:31 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13, before the inquest to start the next day, according to Waxman.
Cameron, the coroner overseeing the inquest, noted he too was “disappointed” the inquest had been sidetracked after all parties had otherwise taken a collaborative approach to the inquest.
Bidali told the Star the final details of what evidence could be submitted were still being worked out in the days leading up to the inquest. The motion was “not an attempt to delay or derail the inquest,” but rather to get clarity on what he could argue before the jury or ask experts about, he said.
James argued the criminal trial into Yatim’s shooting death has already made it “pretty clear” that Yatim’s manner of death was a homicide — “this is not a case where there’s a potential of more than one manner of death,” she said.
During the criminal trial, lawyers for Forcillo unsuccessfully tried to cite the text messages and web searches as part of a “suicide by cop” defence.
Lawyers for the Toronto police board and police chief noted that the court found that any inference that Yatim was suicidal was remote.
“The motion is outrageous, and I don’t say that lightly,” said Anita Szigeti, lawyer for the Empowerment Council, a mental health organization that often has standing at police shooting inquests in Ontario.
Suggesting that Yatim brought his own death upon himself intentionally by provoking Forcillo meets the dictionary definition of the word, she said — “a shockingly offensive suggestion that goes beyond all standards of what is right or decent.”
Coroner’s inquests have “scopes” set by the coroner, which determine the focus of the inquest and dictate which evidence can and cannot be heard by the jury. For the Yatim inquest, Cameron said that since there has been a lengthy trial and a number of reports on policing that stemmed from the death, he’d determined the most useful focus of the inquest was on “police officer decision making.”
“I’m hoping that all the parties can show me that we can run this inquest with its true purpose in mind, being an effective public safety tool for Ontarians,” Cameron said in his opening remarks Wednesday.
The coroner said he would aim to have a ruling on the motion before the end of the year.
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis