A judge has found a Toronto police officer guilty of assault in the beating of a young Black man in 2016, but his brother has been acquitted.
Off-duty Toronto police officer Michael Theriault and his brother Christian were charged with aggravated assault and attempting to obstruct justice for the December 2016 beating of Dafonte Miller, in which the young man lost his left eye. Both men pleaded not guilty.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca delivered his ruling virtually.
Di Luca found Michael guilty of assault but not aggravated assault. Christian was found not guilty of aggravated assault.
Both men were acquitted of obstruction of justice.
Miller responded to the ruling in a statement shortly after.
“While I am disappointed that both Michael and Christian Theriault were not convicted of all charges, I am grateful that Justice Di Luca found Michael Theriault guilty of assaulting me,” he said. “I am grateful that the Judge recognized that what “probably” happened was much worse. The Judge recognized that I was running for my life from people who were trying to harm me not arrest me.
“Officer Theriault abused his authority and he needs to be held accountable. I want to thank my family for all their love and support during these challenging times. I would also like to thank the community for all of their support. My family and I are forever grateful,” Miller continued.
Miller’s lawyer Julian Falconer said “questions remain” and is calling for a Federal Royal Commision of Inquiry “to bring out the truth about beatings and killings of racialized and Indigenous people in police custody.”
Michael will remain out on bail and is due back in court July 15. He is currently suspended with pay.
The judge said due to the pandemic, it is not known at this time whether they will be back in the courtroom or not.
Di Luca began the ruling by saying the decision is 62 pages long and will take multiple hours to be delivered.
During the judge-alone trial, Miller testified that he was severely beaten with a pipe and never had a chance to fight back on the night in question, Dec. 28, 2016.
He told the court he was out walking with two friends when the Theriaults started questioning them about why they were in the area in the early hours of the morning. He said the pair began to chase him when he and his friends walked away.
Miller’s lawyers alleged that race played a role in the incident. Di Luca said he was mindful of the social context surrounding the case, however, his duty was to deliver a judgement based on the evidence and not what the public may be asking for.
“My task is not … to deliver the verdict most clamoured for,” said Di Luca as he began his ruling. “I am not saying race has nothing to do with this case.”
“I’m mindful of the need to carefully consider the racialized context from which this case arises.”
“The Crown has the sole burden of proving each charge against each defendant individually,” said Di Luca. “I must be sure the defendant committed the offence.”
Outside the Oshawa courthouse where the trial had taken place, a solidarity protest took place in honour of Miller. Protesters chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace” among other slogans. When the ruling broke, several demonstrators began yelling, “Shame.”
Michael testified that he hit Miller but said it was only out of self-defence with his fist and not the pipe.
He said it was the then-19-year-old who attacked him and his brother with the pipe after the two caught Miller and his friends breaking into cars, including a truck belonging to their parents.
Michael testified he chased Miller into a dark area between two homes, his brother close behind, and bodychecked him. He testified that’s when Miller hit him with the pipe, adding his brother was also struck in the head.
He told the court he was not injured in the fight, but felt “general soreness.” His brother initially told investigators he was sore, but reported more than a week later that he had since been diagnosed with a concussion.
Court heard during the trial that Michael never identified himself as an officer. However, he could be heard on a 911 call telling Miller he was under arrest at the time of the incident.
The decision was initially scheduled for April, but was postponed in light of public health measures that dramatically reduced court operations.
Toronto police chief responds to ruling
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders spoke to reporters in response to the ruling Friday afternoon.
He said the end of the criminal case means the external review that Waterloo police are conducting into the Toronto police’s handling of the investigation can continue.
Saunders also said his heart goes out to the Miller family and that he won’t deny that “this matter will have an increased strain on the relationship between police and the community, especially the Black community.”
The chief did say the fact that the verdict was livestreamed was possibly the silver lining of the pandemic because it provided people the opportunity to hear “exactly how methodical Justice Di Luca was” in his decision making.
Michael is also currently the subject of a TPS professional standards investigation, as well.
—With files from The Canadian Press