Amidst a backdrop of growing public outrage against police brutality, Toronto cop James Forcillo entered court Tuesday to stand trial for unprecedented murder charges relating to the shooting death of teenager Sammy Yatim.
Forcillo, 32, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from the death of Yatim. The 18-year-old was shot eight times and Tasered while riding a Toronto streetcar on July 27, 2013. Yatim exposed himself to riders and was wielding a small knife at the time, but he was the only person on the streetcar when he was shot.
Murder charges for an officer who killed someone in the line of duty are extremely rare, and a conviction would be "unheard of" said University of Toronto criminologist Mariana Valverde.
"To prove murder you have to prove there was an intention to kill that particular person," she said, which is why a manslaughter charge would be more common in this scenario.
Warning: this video shows the shooting death of Sammy Yatim and may be too graphic for some readers
Valverde suspects the prosecution will argue against a self-defense justification by emphasizing that Forcillo fired multiple rounds and was the only one of the group of officers on scene to do so.
"That would be grounds for the prosecution to say it wasn't a reasonable response and it wasn't reasonable self-defense, because the other cops didn't respond in the same way," said Valverde.
It's possible the murder charge could be downgraded to manslaughter in the course of the trial, she explained, noting the attempted murder charge is "odd" because Yatim did not survive the shooting.
Yatim's death infuriated Torontonians, sparking protests in part because of a bystander video of the incident that was uploaded to YouTube. Security footage taken from inside the streetcar has yet to be seen.
In the US, videos depicting police brutality, including the high-profile deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, have ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. A local chapter is fighting racial injustice in Toronto, including the police practice of carding, which disproportionately affects visible minorities.
Valverde told VICE it's impossible to ignore the cultural context surrounding the Forcillo case.
"The prosecution of a police officer for a homicide committed in the line of duty is inescapably political," she said. "The Attorney General and the Crown office, the sort of managers who decide on these things... might decide they really don't want to look as if they're condoning police violence."
But she noted the Crown would not lay murder charges purely for "symbolic value."
"There must be a not insignificant chance of conviction."
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