The Public’s Misunderstanding of the Charge of Murder

Sammy Yatim died. The surveillance video of the events leading to his death and the subsequent SIU investigation suggest that one man – James Forcillo – was responsible for that death. I’ve written elswhere about the challenges of the Yatim case and how I feel about police use of force, that’s not what I’m going to talk about here. No, what I’m interested in is discussing the plethora of comments made by people whose hearts may be in the right place, but who have no comprehension about what charging Forcillo means.

“Justice is finally going to be done.” Said one person.

“He should be found guilty of murder.” Another.

“Good.” Yet another.

The sad truth is that charging Constable Forcillo with murder is not good, nor will the result (guilty or not) actually produce justice. Let me explain why.

The first most obvious objection I’m going to make is this: Sammy Yatim is dead. The only just result – his leaving that streetcar alive – was made impossible when he was shot to death by Constable Forcillo.

Which brings me to the second point, there is no doubt that Constable Forcillo shot and killed Sammy. What is in question is whether that shooting meets the legal definition of murder. My friend’s comment that he should be found guilty is really beside the point. No one who is not empowered as a trier of fact – be they judge or member of a jury – has any ability to invoke “should” in this case. This is not a value judgment, it is a legal judgment. There is little doubt that what happened to Sammy was unethical. Legally, that’s a different matter. We as a society tend to forget this. Actually I’m not sure most people understand this at all. There is only an imperfect semblance between morality and legality in our legal system. One is normative, the other, proceedural. Criminal law is a process and we’re about to see how legal sausages get made.

Which brings me to the third comment: good. No. This is not good in any way, shape, or form. Its not good because an 18 year old died for no go reason. Its not good because the entire fiasco reflects a number of unconscionable failings on the part of our society – we fail in dealing with mental illness (also keep in mind we have no insight into Yatim’s state of mind), we fail to keep a tight leash on our police forces, we fail on account of not grasping that on top of the death of Sammy Yatim, we are watching in very slow motion, the death of James Forcillo. His life is also over. His chosen career: gone. His life as he knew it: gone. Even if the verdict comes back not guilty, we’ll have a shell of a man to show for it. This will be harrowing. This will be, for the man who held the gun that night, terminal in its own way.

Am I declaring sympathy for Forcillo? No. He was an agent in his own misfortune. But we should not take delight in this. We should not strut and crow. We all have reasons for saying “fuck the police”. Those reasons, however, pale when compared to our own complicity in letting it get this way. We have allowed report after report to go by without meaningful changes to our police force. We have no right to sit smugly as the trial process unfolds. Forcillo is on trial, but so are we. Chief Blair is also on trial, and not for the first time. Blair stinks of inaction in the wake of the G20. His latest gambit in seeking the intervention of retired Justice Dennis O’Connor is more than likely cynical. When it comes to the police, the only people capable of invoking change is us. We must demand a fundamental change to the Police Act in this province. If anything worthwhile comes out of this trial it will have to come from outside the courts. In the end, however, we may never see a trial, and this is something else the public seems ill prepared for. The decision to proceed lies with the Crown and they may ultimately decide that this case is either un-proveable or that a plea is acceptable. Now the latter is unlikely. But as Forcillo surrenders tomorrow it will be interesting to see how the Crown treats this case. It will be a lesson for all of us to see how the process unfolds in such a decidedly unusual case. How well will the courts hold up to the scrutiny? How will we?


Sammy Yatim: Toronto Const. James Forcillo charged with murder in shooting death of man on TTC streetcar | Toronto Star


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