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Sammy Yatim's Death Shook Toronto — Now the Cop Charged with Murder Is on Trial

The violent death of the 18-year-old in July of 2013 served as a catalyst for efforts to change the Toronto police’s use-of-force practices.
Galit Rodan/The Canadian Press

Sammy Yatim is barely visible in the shaky cellphone video that captured his last moments on a Toronto streetcar, two years ago. His figure appears in the doorway, holding a knife that glints under the streetlights, before retreating a few paces as officers, guns drawn, order him to drop the weapon. Sirens wail. And then, gunshots pierce the summer night. Nine of them.

The 18-year-old drops to the floor.


Thousands watched this video and took to the streets in Canada's largest city in July of 2013 demanding "Justice for Sammy," whose violent death served as a catalyst for efforts to change the Toronto police's use-of-force practices. The palpable indignance in Toronto, a relatively safe city, came amid growing unrest about police brutality across North America, as images of Eric Garner and Michael Brown spread far and wide.

This week, the much-anticipated trial of James Forcillo, the Toronto cop who fired the shots, finally opened in a downtown courthouse, with two different versions of what happened to the teenager emerging.

Was Yatim, as the Crown prosecutor frames it, the victim of an excessive use of force, shot multiple times although he didn't physically hurt anyone and shot repeatedly again after he was already on the ground? Or was he high, dangerous, and shot only after he refused to follow simple commands, having been warned of the consequences, as the defense will argue?

On Wednesday, the CBC reported that the court was shown a new video from inside the streetcar of the moments before the shooting, and the shooting itself.

Forcillo, who has waited two years to tell his side of the story, will testify at the trial, his lawyer Peter Brauti told the jury. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder and attempted murder in the death of Yatim, who was struck 8 times by bullets.


While there's no question that Forcillo killed Yatim, the jury is tasked with determining whether shooting nine bullets at Yatim "while he was inside an empty streetcar, surrounded by armed police officers," was necessary and reasonable, Crown prosecutor Milan Rupic said.

Police arrived to find the streetcar empty — Yatim was standing at the front, holding a small knife, said Rupic. The driver and passengers had fled after he exposed himself, pulled out the four-inch switchblade, and tried to slash a woman sitting across from him. The woman will testify that had she not backed away from Yatim in that moment, she may not be alive today, said Brauti. Rupic, however, pointed out that she didn't sustain any injuries, and neither did anyone else on the streetcar, though Yatim had the opportunity to attack them as they exited.

Yatim even told the streetcar driver, after asking to borrow his phone to call his father, that he was free to get off and wouldn't be held hostage, Rupic said.

When Forcillo and his partner Const. Iris Fleckeisen arrived, responding to a "hot shot" call, they only knew there was a man on a streetcar with a knife, and that no injuries had been reported. Both officers had their weapons drawn at first, but Fleckheisen holstered her gun while Forcillo kept his out. He demanded that Yatim drop the knife, according to Rupic. More officers arrived soon after, but Yatim wouldn't drop his knife, and called the officers "pussies."


Related: Questions Abound After Officer Guns Down Church Drummer Along Highway

After Yatim took a few steps back, Forcillo warned him, "You take one step in this direction and I'm going to shoot you, I am telling you right now."

"Don't move," Forcillo told Yatim. At that moment, Yatim decided to come forward. Forcillo told him to drop his knife. Yatim replied, "No." That was the last word he uttered before the first bullet hit his chest, fired before he finished taking his second step, according to Rupic.

"Yatim was not lunging forward, he was not running, and he had not taken a single step down the stairs of the streetcar."

But Forcillo will say Yatim's steps were "perceived as a fearless, purposeful strut forward." Other police officers will testify that they believed Yatim was coming off the streetcar. To explain why he fired three times at first, Forcillo will tell the jury he concluded Yatim was "high on drugs and likely would not respond like a normal person to normal pain threshold."

An autopsy found "moderate to moderately high" levels of ecstasy in Yatim's system, as well as marijuana and a metabolite of cocaine.

Brauti said Forcillo believed Yatim was getting off the ground to "continue his efforts to attack" when he fired six more shots at the teen.

Brauti said the jury will see how Forcillo got on the streetcar and tried to administer first aid, but Yatim resisted and still refused to drop the knife, at which point, another officer tazed him and the knife was kicked out of Yatim's hand. He died shortly after. "The witnesses will tell you that from their perspective, it was Mr. Yatim's conduct which drove this entire incident to its end result," said Brauti.


Related: After Years of Outcry, Toronto Could Soon End Controversial Policing Practice

Many who watched the video of Yatim's final moments and grieved along with his family called it an "execution." His death falls into the same category as several other high-profile deaths at the hands of police were recorded, like Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

"Almost everyone now has the capacity to take a video of something, and if they come across a police officer doing it, they can show what happened, and that's changed the whole nature of policing," says John Sewell, head of Toronto's police accountability coalition. "We're no longer in a position where we just listen to the police spokesperson say, 'Well, this happened and that happened."

"Certainly, that's the case with this — people have been disturbed by the video that was taken."

The trial is also historic in that Toronto police are rarely charged with murder. In the last 25 years, only seven, including Forcillo, have faced murder or manslaughter charges.

If convicted, Forcillo would be the first.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk