A guilty verdict has been handed down in the case of a London, Ont., police officer charged in the death of an Indigenous woman.
Const. Nicholas Doering stood trial by judge alone, and was found guilty on Friday of one count each of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life to Debra Chrisjohn in the hours before her death in September 2016 of causes related to a drug overdose.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance handed down the verdict to a packed London courtroom.
The trial focused on Doering’s interactions with Chrisjohn after he arrested her and before she was transferred into the custody of Elgin OPP, where she was wanted on an outstanding warrant.
The province’s police watchdog said Doering was among those who responded to a call for a traffic obstruction in London on the day of her death. Police had received several calls of an agitated woman wandering into nearby traffic and trying to get into cars.
At the scene, Doering and another officer found Chrisjohn being held down by a witness, and arrested her, later discovering she had an outstanding warrant in Elgin County.
The Special Investigations Unit said Chrisjohn died after being transferred from the custody of London police to the OPP.
Court heard Chrisjohn was alert and conscious when Doering put her in the back of his cruiser, co-operating with police demands, talking and moving. Before Doering drove off with Chrisjohn, court heard a paramedic observed Chrisjohn through the cruiser window but said any checks of her vital signs would likely be skewed due to the fact that she was high on methamphetamine.
Court heard that Chrisjohn’s condition deteriorated significantly over the next 45 minutes, going from sitting upright and talking to lying on her side while moaning and shaking.
Doering testified that he could not remember if he spoke to Chrisjohn during the drive, though he noted he could not hear something she said due to noise from an open window.
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In summarizing Doering’s testimony, Pomerance said the officer stopped the cruiser once, but only to ensure that Chrisjohn had not slipped out of her handcuffs.
Video presented by prosecutors during the trial showed a limp and motionless Chrisjohn being dragged into cells at the Elgin OPP detachment.
She died in St. Thomas hospital of what a post-mortem later determined was cardiac arrest related to methamphetamine overdose.
In her decision, Pomerance said Doering failed to act upon obvious signs that Chrisjohn’s medical condition was deteriorating quickly while she was in his care and did not seek the medical help she couldn’t obtain for herself.
Pomerance said Chrisjohn’s life may have been saved had medical attention been promptly obtained, and ruled his inaction was likely shaped by preconceived notions he had about drug users.
“Although there is no reason to think Debra’s Indigenous background played any role in police decisions in this case, it must be acknowledged that indigenous women and girls are particularly vulnerable to stereotypes,” Pomerance said.
Speaking outside the London courthouse, Debra’s sister Brittany said the family was happy with the verdict.
“With what happened today, we feel as a family we can start the healing process with no interruptions and all I have to say is she is really missed.”
“It is hard for us to hear about how she was seen by the police _ and about how she was so wrongly judged in her final moments.”
Doering’s lawyer did not respond to request for comment on the guilty verdict.
Doering is still working for London police, according to a service official, adding Pomerance’s decision will be reviewed before making future decisions about his job status.
A sentencing date for Doering will be determined Nov. 12.
— with files from 980 CFPL’s Sawyer Bogdan and the Canadian Press