News that Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion was found not guilty on all counts in the death of Abdirahman Abdi has “devastated” the victim’s family and left the officer feeling “relieved,” according to lawyers for both sides.
Members of the community and some elected representatives, meanwhile, denounced the verdict as another failure of the criminal justice system to hold police to account for their role in the death of a Black man.
Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer for Abdi’s family, spoke to reporters outside the Ottawa courthouse where the verdict came down Tuesday morning.
He said Abdi’s family had low expectations for the outcome of the trial, which sought to answer whether Montsion could be held criminally responsible for the death of the 37-year-old Somali-born man.
Montsion was found not guilty of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a deadly weapon in relation to Abdi’s death following a violent arrest in 2016.
“The family did not expect that the criminal justice system was the means to effecting change,” Greenspon said. Greenspon is now representing the family in a civil lawsuit on the matter.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters in Ottawa’s Confederation Park on Tuesday evening, members of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition said the criminal justice system failed Abdi and his family.
“Today was a demonstration and a stark reminder that this so-called justice system continues to fail to protect a certain segment of the population, and in particular, Black, Indigenous and racialized people,” said Farhia Ahmed, outgoing chair of the coalition.
“We are tired of seeing injustices after injustices. We are tired. We are not calling the systems to do anything for us today, we don’t need you — clearly,” said Dahabo Ahmed-Omer.
The coalition, which formed in the days after Abdi’s death four years ago and has since become a leading voice for anti-racism and police reform in Ottawa, later led a gathered group from the park into the street to block traffic amid chants of “no justice, no peace.”
Lawyers representing Montsion also gave brief comments after the trial adjourned Tuesday morning.
Defence counsel Michael Edelson said Montsion was “very relieved after four years of litigation” and is “looking forward to getting back to work.”
The Ottawa Police Service would not provided answers Tuesday as to when or if Montsion will be reinstated to active duty.
But the OPS did say in a statement that they “respect the court’s decision.”
The OPS said they will be conducting an “incident, service and policy review” in response to the incident, the results of which will be made public via the Ottawa Police Services Board.
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, confirmed in an interview with Global News that Montsion and his colleagues on the call will still be subject to a Section 11 investigation by the chief of police, as is common practice after Special Investigations Unit probes.
In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, Skof called for officers to stand with Montsion and his family after the verdict and reiterated the union’s support for its members.
Solomon Friedman, Edelson’s partner in Montsion’s defence, said it was a “complex” and “challenging” case, and urged members of the public to read the justice’s full 100-plus-page judgment to understand why the trial ended in a not-guilty decision.
Abdi’s arrest and subsequent death in July 2016 has become one of Ottawa’s highest-profile cases of police violence.
Ontario court Judge Robert Kelly said in his judgment that he was left with “reasonable doubt” that Montsion’s actions that day outside Abdi’s Hintonburg apartment led to his death.
He said the Crown had set out to prove that Montsion had committed an “unlawful act” during Abdi’s arrest, which saw the constable strike Abdi in the face and head multiple times with reinforced gloves.
The “thread” running through all three counts Montsion was facing was the question of whether his actions constituted “unjustified assault,” Kelly said.
If the Crown could not answer this key question beyond a reasonable doubt, Kelly could not find Montsion guilty, he said.
“Proof that he is probably guilty is not enough,” Kelly said in his judgment.
Abdi sustained injuries to his face and suffered a heart attack during the arrest. He died the following day in hospital as a result of brain hypoxia, the court heard during the trial.
While the Crown attempted to prove that Montsion’s strikes broke Abdi’s nose and “accelerated” his death, the defence was successful in creating doubt.
Montsion’s counsel did so by suggesting that those injuries could have been sustained after Abdi was pinned to the ground or during a takedown with the other officer involved, Const. Dave Weir, who was previously cleared of charges in the SIU probe.
“I am left in a state of reasonable doubt about whether Const. Montsion’s acts caused Mr. Abdi’s death,” Kelly said.
The Crown also submitted that Montsion had acted with “wanton or reckless disregard” for Abdi’s life, in a manner that surpassed responsible police conduct in such a circumstance.
But on this submission, too, Kelly found doubt, based on a review of communications over police radio channels and reports displayed on police cruiser computers when Montsion was on his way to the scene, surmising from this evidence what the constable might have known when arriving.
This information would have helped to determine whether his use of force was justified based on his assessment of the situation, Kelly said.
These communications included audio recordings of Weir as he attempted to subdue and chase down Abdi following reports he had attacked patrons of a local coffee shop.
Kelly said he could not, based on his review of this evidence, find Montsion guilty on any of the charges.
“I am left with a reasonable doubt about whether this conduct shows a wanton or reckless disregard for Mr. Abdi’s safety,” he said.
“I conclude that the Crown has failed to meet its burden to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the force Const. Montsion used was not justified.”
The judge did not make any ruling one way or another on one of the key questions in the case, which was whether Montsion’s reinforced gloves were considered a “weapon.”
He said that because his decision-making process did not conclusively show Montsion’s disregard for Abdi’s safety, he did not need to determine whether the Crown proved the gloves constitute a “weapon” under section 2 of the Criminal Code.
Kelly acknowledged at the end of his judgment that Abdi’s death and Montsion’s subsequent trial had “touched so many people” in Hintonburg and beyond.
“The trial of Const. Montsion was long and difficult. My task, throughout, was to listen and reflect with an open mind on all of the evidence and the submissions of council. My only duty was to decide, dispassionately, based on the admissible evidence and the applicable law, whether the Crown met its burden of proving Const. Montsion’s guilt on each charge,” Kelly said.
The case was supposed to conclude earlier this year but was delayed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Abdi’s mental health not addressed in verdict
Some Ottawa municipal politicians and many members of the community took to Twitter to express their dissatisfaction with the verdict.
Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, whose ward includes Hintonburg, called the judgment an “indictment of our city and our country.”
Both councillors Catherine McKenney and Shawn Menard, who last week put forward a motion seeking to hike Ottawa Public Health funding in lieu of a planned increase to the OPS budget, denounced the verdict on Twitter, with McKenney noting that “we must stop criminalizing mental illness.”
Witnesses described Abdi as acting erratically at the coffee shop before the arrest and his family spokesperson noted afterwards that he suffered from unspecified mental health issues. The defence contended he was in a state of excited delirium during the incident, but Kelly said he did not factor this submission into his final judgment.
Greenspon said that Abdi’s mental illness was not reflected in Tuesday’s verdict.
“The family did not expect that the criminal justice system would be the way to resolve the systemic problems, including the challenges of dealing with those people who have mental health issues,” he said.
Speaking to Global News on Tuesday, Skof said the original call that day was put in as a criminal matter, not one of mental illness, and said Montsion and Weir responded to the situation accordingly. He said it would not have been “appropriate” for the officers to respond to the call and attempt to make a mental health diagnosis if they believed public safety was at risk.
“The response today would be the exact same as it was four years ago,” Skof said, though he noted the force is working to improve its training in regards to mental health.
The OPS said in its statement that the service is working on address a range of issues in policing including mental health and race.
Also on Tuesday, Skof dismissed recent comments from police Chief Peter Sloly acknowledging the existence of systemic racism in Ottawa.
He said systemic racism is a “very specific term” and should not be applied to instances like Tuesday’s verdict.
“It’s out of context. There is a time and place to discuss it. It’s not this moment,” he said in an interview with Global News.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that it is a “challenging and emotional day” for the city and its residents and extended his sympathies to Abdi’s family and members of Ottawa’s Somali community.
He said institutions must acknowledge “systemic discrimination” to address issues facing Black, Indigenous and racialized people in Ottawa, but also stated his “full confidence” in Canada’s justice system.
Watson also said he is aware the trial has been “difficult” for members of the Ottawa Police Service, including Sloly. He reiterated his support for the chief’s efforts to reform the force.
United For All, a community group including Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey and Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, put out a statement Tuesday afternoon expressing its condolences to the Abdi family while also reaffirming its support of Sloly’s vision.
“Under the leadership of Chief Peter Sloly and his executive team, we hope to see continued progress that builds trust and mutual understanding between police and racialized members of our community,” the statement said.
“Let us continue the work, and find a way forward that sees us overcome racism and violence in Ottawa. Let’s do this to honour the life of Abdirahman Abdi.”
— With files from Global News’ Mike Le Couteur