HAMILTON – Indigenous leaders said Wednesday they were shocked and disappointed by a Hamilton jury’s decision to acquit a local homeowner in the shooting death of a Six Nations man who broke into his truck at night.
Peter Khill, 28, had admitted he killed Jon Styres around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4, 2016, but pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, saying he fired in self-defence when he thought Styres was pointing a gun at him.
Styres, a 29-year-old father of two from Ohsweken, Ont., on the Six Nations reserve, did not have a gun at the time of the shooting, the trial heard.
The mother of Styres’s children broke into loud sobs and had to leave the courtroom after the jury delivered its verdict.
The Six Nations Elected Council called on the Crown to appeal the trial’s outcome.
“How can Indigenous people have faith in the relationship with Canada when the justice system fails to hold anyone accountable for the taking of a life?” Elected Chief Ava Hill said in a statement.
Khill’s trial garnered attention for its similarities to a recent Saskatchewan case, in which white farmer Gerald Stanley was acquitted in the shooting death of young Indigenous man Colten Boushie.
“Jonathan Styres, Colten Boushie (and other Indigenous victims) were all born with mothers and fathers, raised as children with hopes and dreams and were loved as adults with families and responsibilities,” Hill said. “It is unfathomable that their tragic deaths are unanswered by the Canadian justice system.”
A spokeswoman for Indigenous advocacy group Justice of Our Stolen Children called Khill’s acquittal “typical.”
“For some reason, when Indigenous people are killed by non-Indigenous people, it is very often considered justifiable homicide,” said Robyn Pitawanakwat.
Her organization has been camped outside the Saskatchewan legislature since February, in protest of Stanley’s acquittal and the acquittal of Manitoba man Raymond Cormier, charged with second-degree murder in the death of Indigenous teenager Tina Fontaine.
Khill remained stoic as the verdict was read out. Once the proceedings were finished, he embraced his tearful wife, who is six months pregnant with the couple’s first child.
His lawyer said later Khill told him he was grateful for the verdict.
“He said, ‘I just want to thank the jury for the way they dealt with the evidence and in addition thank family and friends for their support,”‘ Jeffrey Manishen told reporters outside court.
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The legal proceedings had been particularly stressful for Khill and his wife, Melinda Benko, the lawyer said.
“Even the issue of deciding to get married not that long before the trial, that was certainly one they had to consider, but I think their support for one another is very strong,” Manishen said.
Styres’s family said they would not comment or answer questions about the trial or its outcome.
The trial heard that Khill and Benko awoke to the sound of banging outside their rural home early on a February morning in 2016. Khill looked out the window and saw Styres inside his truck, the jury heard. Khill loaded his shotgun, left the home through the back door and went to confront Styres, court heard.
At trial Khill testified that he had yelled at Styres to put his hands up and fired as Styres began to turn towards him. Styres was facing sideways with his hands at waist height when he was shot, Crown lawyer Steve O’Brien told the jury.
Only after Khill fired two shots at Styres did Benko call 911.
The Crown argued at trial that Styres did not pose a reasonable threat to Khill and Benko while they were inside their locked home, and that Khill should have called 911 and waited for police rather than run out of the house with a loaded shotgun.
Manishen told the jury Khill was simply following his training as a military reservist to “neutralize” a threat to his life.
“Soldiers react proactively, that’s how they are trained,” Manishen said in his closing address. “Mr. Khill said that’s why he acted the way he acted. To take control of the situation.”
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After the verdict, Manishen told reporters he thought Khill’s military service was a central point of the trial, and was significant to determining whether Khill had acted reasonably to defend himself under the circumstances.
Superior Court Justice Stephen Glithero told the jury that self-defence can be justified by the reasonable belief that a person is being threatened, whether or not that threat actually exists.
The jury was also given the option of finding Khill guilty of manslaughter if they decided he had not acted in self-defence but had also not meant to kill or inflict potentially deadly harm on Styres. In the end, jurors found Khill not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Manishen told the jury in his closing arguments that race played no part in the case, as Khill could not possibly have known Styres was Indigenous given how dark it was at the time of the shooting and how quickly events unfolded.
He also noted after the verdict that potential jurors had been asked if they could be impartial given Khill and Styres’ races – a measure he said put him at ease about the issue of bias.
“(It) was, in my view, an excellent approach to be able to dispel any concern about race playing any part in the case, recognizing it had nothing to do with the facts,” he said.