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Toronto cop sentenced to six years in jail in shooting death of teenager

Constable James Forcillo was found not guilty of second-degree murder but guilty of attempted murder in January after firing two volleys of shots at Sammy Yatim, who refused to obey his commands to drop a knife.

by Rachel Browne and Natalie Alcoba
Jul 28 2016, 3:30pm

James Forcillo is seen leaving a Toronto courthouse in January, 2015. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

A Toronto police officer has been sentenced to six years in prison for the attempted murder of Sammy Yatim, who died in a hail of bullets in the summer of 2013 in a case that sparked outrage over the use of force by police of Canada's largest city. Constable James Forcillo stood up in the courtroom, without any visible signs of emotion, as he heard his fate.

Forcillo's lawyers swiftly filed a notice of appeal of his conviction. Earlier this year, he was found not guilty of second-degree murder but guilty of attempted murder in January after firing two volleys of shots at the teenager, who refused to obey his commands to drop a knife on a Toronto streetcar. Although Yatim, who was 18 years old, sustained fatal injuries during the first volley of shots, the jury convicted Forcillo for the second volley.

On Thursday, Justice Edward Then ruled that the second volley of shots fired at Yatim — shots taken after the teen was paralyzed and dying on the ground — were "unnecessary, unreasonable, and excessive."

Forcillo's lawyer had sought a two year sentence, less a day, to be served in the community, arguing that imprisonment in this case would "serve no real purpose other than denunciation."

But Justice Then said leniency was inapplicable for Forcillo because he has never shown any remorse.

Forcillo was asked in court if he'd like to say anything, and he declined. Justice Then said his decision does not reflect the TPS as a whole and that when a police officer breaks the law, it's the duty of the court to denounce that and reaffirm the trust between the community and the police.

Mike McCormack, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Assocation, told reporters outside the courthouse that the force was "digesting the verdict," which is now under appeal. "We will see what the next step is."

"The message is that we go out there and we do our professional job and we do a great job each and every day," McCormack said. "It's a tragic day for the Forcillo family, the Yatim family, for the community, and for policing. There's never going to be any good outcome for this."

Yatim's parents addressed reporters shortly after the hearing. His sister stood by her father, but said she didn't want to say anything.

"The sentence of six years for office Forcillo today presents justice for Sammy," said his mother, Sahar Bahadi, who was dressed in all black and clutching a used tissue. "My family will now attempt to put the pieces of our lives back together. Our lives will never be the same. Sammy will never be coming back to us. But I want him back."

She said they will try to remember the best parts of Yatim's life. Yesterday was the three-year anniversary of his death. "Sammy was a good boy. And his life was not only the few minutes on that streetcar," she said.

The Yatim family speaks to reporters. (Photo by Rachel Browne)

Yatim's father, Nabil, added that he hopes today's decision makes it so that something like what happened to his son won't happen again. However, he said that with the appeal process now underway, he and his family are going to go through many more years of anguish.

"Are we prepared for that? Nobody's prepared for that," he said. "This is the first leg of the journey."

However, Nabil Yatim added that he still has faith in the police force. "I think the majority of them are superb nice people, but you always have a bad apple or two," he said.

According to a press release on behalf of Toronto Police Services chief Mark Saunders, Forcillo has now be suspended from the force without pay. He still faces disciplinary matters before the TPS tribunal.

The killing of Sammy Yatim struck a nerve in Toronto, and drew people to the streets in protest as outrage in the United States gathered over the cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other instances of police brutality.

Yatim's death was also captured on video, by passers by, leading many who saw it to view it as an "execution." It led to an inquiry, led by a judge, to examine how police in Toronto use lethal force when dealing with people who may be suffering from a mental illness.

Toronto is a relatively safe city by North American standards, and cops are rarely charged with murder. In the last 25 years, only seven, have faced murder or manslaughter charges. Forcillo is the first to be convicted.

The Crown sought an eight-to-10-year sentence. But defense lawyer Peter Brauti pleaded for a sentence more lenient than the mandatory four or five years, and tried to keep his client, who has still been collecting a pay cheque as an officer, out of a jail cell.

During the emotionally charged sentencing hearing, which included the mother of the victim walking out at one point in tears, Brauti argued that since the first volley of shots left Yatim paralyzed, he wouldn't have felt any discomfort from the second volley, which is what he was found guilty of.

"Are you suggesting that I should look at the bullet wounds as inconsequential?" asked Then.

"From an actual harm perspective, we know that [the second volley] doesn't cause death, accelerate the death, affect his health or cause discomfort," Brauti responded.

Group outside the courthouse on University Ave. in Toronto (Photo by Rachel Browne)

Tamara Khandaker contributed to this report

Follow Rachel Browne and Natalie Alcoba on Twitter: @rp_browne and @nataliealcoba