This story has been updated to include a statement from Toronto police.
A Toronto police officer who beat a Black teenager so badly he lost an eye has been sentenced to nine months in jail.
Michael Theriault, 28, was off-duty when he chased and beat Dafonte Miller, who was 19 at the time, in Whitby, Ontario in the early morning hours of December 28, 2016.
His brother Christian Theriault was also involved in the altercation and both were initially charged with aggravated assault and obstruction of justice for allegedly misleading police about what happened. In June, Christian was fully acquitted and Theriault was acquitted of obstruction.
Theriault was found guilty of assault, but not aggravated assault because Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca had a reasonable doubt as to whether or not Miller’s eye injury took place when Theriault was beating him with a metal pipe or before.
The Crown has appealed the acquittals while the defence has appealed Theriault’s conviction. Theriault has applied to remain on bail for the duration of the appeal.
On Thursday, Di Luca laid out his reasons for sentencing, repeatedly raising the wider context of police brutality against Black people.
“The Black community has suffered deep wounds due to years of overt and systemic racism,” Di Luca said.
Di Luca said police officers’ sentences must reflect their “special position” in society because crimes committed by cops amount to a “breach of public trust.”
On the morning of the assault, Di Luca said Miller and his friends were “car hopping” (stealing stuff from cars) when the Theriaults spotted him and his friends leaving their parents’ truck and started chasing them.
They chased him to a neighbours yard and both punched him, while Theriault also beat him with a metal pipe.
Di Luca said he believes brothers were likely just beating on Miller in the initial part of the altercation, but he had a reasonable doubt as to whether or not they were acting in self-defense. He said when Theriault beat him again with a pipe when Miller seeking help, that constituted assault.
Initially, Durham police believed the brothers and charged Miller with assault with assault, possession of a weapon, theft and weed possession. Those charges were later dropped.
The brothers’ father John Theriault was a detective with Toronto police’s professional standards unit; he was accused of interfering with the investigation and subsequently retired. Toronto police did not notify the Special Investigations Unit, which investigates when cops injure or kill someone, about the assault when it took place. The SIU laid charges after Miller’s lawyer contacted them.
Miller’s left eye burst during the assault and had to be replaced with a prosthetic. He also had fractures to his nose, wrist and orbital bone.
While he said he thinks Theriault is at low-risk to re-offend and can likely be rehabilitated, he said the sentence must deter others from committing similar crimes.
Other aggravating factors include the fact that Miller was badly injured and was in retreat when Theriault beat him.
Di Luca said Miller’s injury has “robbed him of simple joys of life” and continues to give him headaches and leave him on edge.
Di Luca also quoted Miller’s mother describing the “deep hurt she felt upon discovering that police officers sworn to serve and protect failed to protect Mr. Miller.”
In his victim impact statement, Miller said he couldn’t believe “someone that is sworn to serve and protect was viciously attacking me without any justification for doing so.”
He said Theriault could have gotten away with the assault “because of the colour of my skin.”
Di Luca said Theriault expressed empathy and recognized that Miller’s injury will be permanent.
“He noted that if he could go back in time he would have avoided any confrontation with Mr. Miller,” Di Luca said.
“Once this matter is behind you, I urge you to continue as a productive and contributing member of society,” Di Luca told Theriault.
The judge wished Miller and his family well in their healing.
“I hope you find strength, peace, and solace to move forward,” he said.
In addition to jail time, Theriault will be on probation for 12 months and will face a five-year weapons ban. Until now, he has been suspended with pay from the Toronto police; last year he made more than $100,000.
In a statement released Thursday, Toronto police said Theriault is now suspended without pay and the force’s professional standards unit will resume its investigation into how the case was handled.
The police force’s handling of the matter is being investigated by Waterloo police.
"Today’s outcome does not change the life-altering injuries sustained by Mr. Dafonte Miller," said Toronto police chief James Ramer in the statement. "This case has created a further divide between the police and the Black community, especially those who have lived experiences of discrimination in the justice system or by police. We will continue to take the steps necessary to rebuild trust with our communities and to ensure accountability and transparency."
The statement said Toronto police have changed their process to make sure the Special Investigations Unit is informed in cases involving off-duty officers.
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