In order to acquit Gerald Stanley, jurors had to believe evidence that had “no air of reality,” according to a leading Canadian gun expert.
Stanley’s defence was that he killed Colten Boushie, 22, as a result of a hang fire, which is a delay between the time a person pulls the trigger and the time the round is fired. But experts say it’s a very rare occurrence and that in Stanley’s case in particular, it seems very unlikely that this is what happened.
“It’s only possible for them to have acquitted him if they sort of systematically ignored all the evidence that suggested he should be guilty of something and accepted every single aspect of his rather ridiculous defence,” A.J. Somerset, Ontario-based author of Arms: the Culture & Credo of the Gun, told VICE.
Stanley, 56, a white farmer, killed Boushie, a Cree man, in August 2016, after Boushie, his girlfriend, and three friends drove onto Stanley’s farm; their Ford Escape had punctured a tire. Boushie’s friends testified they went on Stanley’s property looking for help. Stanley said he believed they were going to steal his ATV.
Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter on February 9, a verdict that has sparked outrage amongst Canadians, and exacerbated racial tension in the country, particularly when it comes to how Indigenous people are treated by the justice system.
Stanley testified in court that he and his son Sheldon were frightened when Boushie and his friends drove onto their property. Two of the five in Boushie’s group—driver Cassidy Cross-Whitstone and Eric Meechance—got out of the SUV and approached Stanley’s ATV. Stanley and his son Sheldon said they heard the ATV start and began yelling at which point the two men got back into their vehicle tried to drive off, but instead rammed into Stanley’s car.
Stanley said that he kicked their taillight while Sheldon smashed their windshield with a hammer. At that point, Meechance and Cross-Whitsone exited their SUV.
That's when Stanley testified he retrieved his Tokarev TT33, a semi-automatic pistol, loaded two rounds, and fired two warning shots in the air. It later turned out that he had loaded three rounds. Then he said he continued to pull the trigger and removed the magazine to make the gun safe. He testified he became concerned that his wife had been run over by the Ford Escape when he didn’t see her on the lawnmower and he ran over to the SUV. Boushie, whose friends testify he had been sleeping in the backseat earlier, was now in the driver’s seat. Stanley said he reached into the driver’s side of the SUV with his left hand to turn off the ignition keeping the pistol in his right hand. That’s when his defence said the hang fire went off—and the resulting round hit Boushie in the back of the head, killing him.
“Boom, it just went off,” Stanley testified.
Somerset said he has never experienced a hang fire or known anyone who has, but the ones he’s heard of usually go off within a fraction of a second—far less time than it would have taken for Stanley to empty the gun and get to the SUV. Canada’s firearm safety rules require shooters to wait a minute with a gun pointed down range after a misfire to ensure a hang fire doesn’t go off but that is to err on the side of caution. ”It’s a [time period] that is supposed to make it completely impossible,” said Somerset.
The Crown’s expert witnesses could not offer an explanation as to why the gun would’ve just gone off while the defence presented anecdotal evidence on the existence of hang fires.
Rob Feist, a Saskatchewan-based lawyer and former army cadet firearms instructor who followed the Stanley trial closely, told VICE he found a number of aspects of Stanley’s story strange.
He said he’s never heard of a hang fire lasting longer than half a second. He also said he thought it was unusual that Stanley didn’t know he had loaded three rounds and that, in any case, “it’s puzzling he would load his firearm with only two shells if he believed his family was under threat.”
Somerset said, “if you’ve ever loaded the magazine of a semi-automatic pistol or rifle, you know how ridiculous it is that he could somehow put in an extra round” and not realize it.
As for Stanley’s testimony that he continued pulling the trigger in the air to ensure the gun was empty, Feist said that’s not a method Canadian gun owners would use to make a gun safe. Added Somerset, no one with any knowledge of how a semi-automatic gun would continue to pull the trigger with a gun pointed in the air to make the gun safe. If Stanley had looked into the chamber—something Canadian firearm safety courses instruct gun owners to do—he would have realized there was still a cartridge in there. He said Stanley’s claim that he removed the magazine would mean that he was running around with an empty gun and the round still didn’t fall out.
“It’s as if this was concocted for the jury to create a good tale of how careful he was,” said Somerset.
Feist also noted that he had difficulty with Stanley’s testimony that he took the time to pull back the slide on the gun and make sure it was empty if he believed his family was in danger.
Feist said he and his colleagues tried to physically act out Stanley’s testimony that he reached into the SUV Boushie was inside with his left hand to turn off the ignition while the pistol remained in his right hand. He said it would be extremely awkward to try to turn off the car with your left hand from outside the window, and that he has trouble understanding why the gun would be positioned where it was, in the vehicle or pointed at the window of the vehicle.
“The hang fire lasted an extremely long period of time and that hang fire occured right when the firearm was aimed at Colten Boushie’s head,” Feist said.
In the aftermath of the acquittal, rhetoric has been strong around self-defence and the protection of property. (The SUV containing Boushie had a rifle inside, but Stanley testified he did not see it and that no one in the car when he shot Boushie had threatened him.)
Posting in a Facebook called Farmers with Firearms, a man named Mark Perkins wrote, “it’s not a racist issue. I would have shot ‘whoever’ is was.. more of them than me, they are armed, they had been drinking, MY STUFF !!” He noted that police “show up five hours later and never find my stuff… Just let them steal, vandalize, scare my family, and do nothing is NOT MY WAY.”
The reality is Canada doesn’t have so-called Castle laws, which allow for the use of lethal force when someone trespasses on to private property. Here, a person can use force if they or someone around them are under immediate threat of serious harm. Trespassing or stealing would not meet the threshold for using lethal force.
On a personal note, Feist said he grew up on a farm 30 miles from Red Pheasant Reserve, where Boushie was from.
“I certainly had firearms at home. We used those firearms as a tool and we never at any point ever would have thought of using those firearms on a human being,” he said.
A fundraiser to support Stanley has raised more than $174,000, with many of the donations seemingly coming from rural farmers.
Somerset said the rhetoric around self-defence that’s emerged from the Stanley case shows that people don’t actually think Boushie’s death was an accident, but a justified killing.
“I think it is a clue to the motivated reasoning the jury was going through,” he said. “They saw him as not guilty because they saw him as defending his property.”
Stanley still faces two charges for unsafe storage of a firearm.
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