Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and assault as the trial to determine whether he is criminally responsible for the 2016 death of Ottawa resident Abdirahman Abdi began on Monday inside a packed courtroom.
Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian, died shortly after an altercation with city police officers outside his apartment building in Hintonburg, west of downtown Ottawa, two-and-half years ago.
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) charged Montsion in 2017 with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon, following an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Abdi’s death.
Montsion did not speak to reporters as he arrived at the courthouse on Monday morning, accompanied by Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof.
In the courtroom, Montsion only spoke to greet the judge and to officially enter his not-guilty plea as he was arraigned.
The judge-only trial is expected to take approximately 12 weeks, during which Montsion will be represented by well-known Ottawa criminal defence lawyer Michael Edelson. Representing the Crown are two Toronto prosecutors, Philip Perlmutter and Roger Shallow.
Family, friends and the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition have described Abdi as someone who had mental-health challenges but who was not violent.
His death sent shock waves throughout the Ottawa community and across Canada, sparking questions about racial profiling, police brutality and mental health supports, and prompting demands for police training reform.
The Crown argued on Monday that the outcome of the case turns on answers to two questions: whether Montsion used excessive force in arresting Abdi, and whether Montsion caused Abdi’s death. The Crown intends to prove that the answer to both questions is ‘yes,’ Perlmutter said.
Montsion’s ‘unjustified assault’ caused fatal heart attack and brain damage, Crown argues
In his opening statement to the court, Perlmutter argued that Montsion committed an “unjustified assault” on Abdi the morning of July 24, 2016 by punching him several times in the legs and face with knuckle-plated assault gloves.
Facial injuries from those punches were “one of several mechanisms” that brought about a heart attack and hypoxic brain damage and “contributed to his death,” the Crown alleged.
“This trial is about an arrest gone bad, an arrest that resulted in the death of Abdirahman Abdi,” Perlmutter said.
It all began when Ottawa police Const. Dave Weir was dispatched around 9:30 a.m. that Sunday morning in response to a report of sexual assaults at the Bridgehead coffee shop on Wellington Street West in Hintonburg, Perlmutter said. Abdi ran away as Weir attempted to arrest him and Weir chased him on foot to 55 Hilda St., an apartment building where Abdi resided, located about 300 metres away from the cafe.
Weir tried again to arrest the unarmed Abdi in front of the building, but he didn’t comply, Perlmutter said. The prosecutor argued CCTV footage from the lobby of the apartment building shows that Montsion arrived shortly after, got out of his car and “without any hesitation, approached the scene and immediately struck Mr. Abdi in the face with closed fists.”
The two officers brought Abdi to the ground and pinned him face-down, according to the Crown’s statement. Montsion, who was wearing Oakley assault gloves, punched Abdi’s “flailing legs” before punching him “more than one time” in the face, Perlmutter alleged.
Abdi stopped moving soon after, the prosecutor said, and emergency responders tended to him when they arrived some time afterward. He was later pronounced dead in hospital.
It has since been established that Abdi had a pre-existing heart condition, the court heard on Monday.
The defence has not yet presented its opening statement or arguments, but according to media reports from October 2017, Edelson is said to have suggested during pre-trial proceedings that what occurred at 55 Hilda St. in 2016 was not a beating and that Abdi died of a heart attack.
But the Crown argued on Monday that the heart attack was caused by a “confluence of factors,” including Montsion’s “unjustified punches” and the “physical and emotional stress” caused by the series of events that began at the Bridgehead cafe.
What happened at the coffee shop, however, “has no bearing on the Crown’s case in relation to the assault,” Perlmutter told the court.
The Crown called one forensic witness to the stand before court adjourned on Monday: SIU investigator David Robinson, who talked about some of the evidence he collected and documented at the scene following the struggle between Abdi and police.
Eight eyewitnesses to testify week of Feb. 25; courtroom packed to capacity
Eight eyewitnesses, many of them members of Abdi’s family, are expected to testify the week of Feb. 25.
Ontario Court Justice Robert Kelly on Monday ordered those eight individuals to leave the courtroom so their testimonies would not be tainted by the proceedings. The judge also ordered that they do not discuss their respective testimonies with other witnesses or potential witnesses.
The six rows in the courtroom assigned to the trial on Monday were packed as the public proceedings got underway and couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to sit in.
Edelson raised this with the judge, noting many people who showed up to support his client were unable to get into the courtroom to do so.
Until past 4 p.m. on Monday, the three rows on the Crown’s side of the courtroom remained filled with supporters of Abdi’s relatives and community members.
The judge confirmed at the end of the day that the trial proceedings would be relocated to a larger courtroom from Tuesday onward.
Montsion’s trial will resume Tuesday at 10 a.m.