An inquest has ruled the 2010 death of a First Nations man who was beaten and restrained by police was accidental, sending a shock through a small community that believes the officers involved should face charges.
A video played during the inquest and obtained by VICE News showed Romeo Wesley died minutes after two Nishnawbe Aski police officers struck him with a baton, handcuffed him and then held him down by stepping on his back.
According to an autopsy report, the cause of death was “chest compression and prone positional restraint in a man with acute alcohol withdrawal.” It took eight minutes after Wesley stopped kicking for a doctor to check his vitals and perform CPR.
The small community of Cat Lake in northern Ontario was “disappointed and broken hearted” after hearing the verdict, said family member Abigail Wesley. “Most people were in tears, probably every single person.”
Although the community hoped for charges, the role of a coroner’s inquest is not to find fault or assign blame — it’s a truth finding process that can make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future, explained Mike Maher, lawyer for the Cat Lake First Nation.
Maher said the ruling of “accidental” left the community with “a hollow sense of justice.”
“[The police officers] didn’t accidentally stand on him, they stood on him because they wanted to stand on him. That wasn’t accidental,” said Abigail. “It’s common sense you know. If you want to hurt somebody, you hurt somebody.”
“[The police officers] didn’t accidentally stand on him, they stood on him because they wanted to stand on him.”
For many community members, the inquest was the first time they saw the video.
“The video says it all,” Abigail continued. “This is what we believe.”
On Wednesday as the jury deliberated, Wesley’s friends and family held a small protest and candlelight vigil, pleading with the jury to give them justice for Romeo.
The jury didn’t give a rationale for why they determined the man’s death was accidental. However they did publish a list of more than 50 recommendations aiming to prevent similar deaths in the future. Maher said the recommendations included more government funding for police and health care on northern reserves.
Abigail said she hopes the recommendations are implemented so they can stop deaths like Romeo’s from happening again.