Ontario’s top court has ordered a new trial for a young man convicted of first-degree murder in a highway crash that claimed the life of a provincial police officer.
The man, who was 15 at the time of the incident in 2011 and therefore cannot be named, was rendered quadriplegic in the crash that killed Const. Garrett Styles.
He was sentenced in 2015 to a conditional supervision order for nine years, after the trial judge found he was already effectively serving a life sentence as a result of his physical state and that he had been rehabilitated.
The man appealed his conviction, alleging the trial judge made several legal errors and that the first-degree murder verdict was unreasonable.
In a ruling released Tuesday, the appeal court found the trial judge erred in failing to caution jurors that they should consider the accused’s age and level of maturity at the time of the incident in determining whether he knew his actions were likely to cause Styles’ death.
“This was a tragic case in which a police officer was killed as a result of the irresponsible acts of a headstrong 15-year-old,” Justice Janet Simmons wrote.
“In these circumstances, it was necessary for the trial judge to caution the jury that 15-year-olds do not have the same life experience as adults and that, as a result, a 15-year-old may not have the level of maturity to foresee the consequences of a particular course of action,” she said.
The appellant had taken his parents’ van late at night in June 2011 to go driving with friends _ despite having no licence _ when Styles pulled them over in East Gwillimbury, Ont.
Court heard Styles sought to impound the van and repeatedly asked the teen driver to step out of the vehicle, eventually reaching inside to unbuckle his seatbelt.
The van then suddenly accelerated and dragged the officer about 300 metres before veering off the road and landing on top of him.
At the heart of the trial was whether the 15-year-old meant to drive away, as the Crown alleged, or did so accidentally while in a state of panic, as the defence argued.
The defence sought to introduce as evidence a statement the accused made to his father 26 days after the crash, in which he discussed his state of mind during the incident, but the judge ruled against it, court documents say.
In its closing submissions, the Crown urged the jury to consider that the appellant had not told a paramedic at the scene that he had tried to brake or slow down the van, suggesting he would have if it was the truth. That issue was not something the man had not been cross-examined on, the documents say.
Defence lawyers initially sought again to have the statement to the father introduced in response to the Crown’s submissions, but instead brought an application for mistrial.
The trial judge rejected the mistrial application, saying he would tell the jury to ignore the Crown’s argument on what was said to the paramedic. But in the end, the judge left it to jurors to decide whether the accused’s failure to give a detailed account to the paramedic should affect his credibility.
In its decision Tuesday, the appeal court found the judge erred by not telling jurors to discount that aspect of the Crown’s closing arguments.
However, the three-judge panel disagreed on whether the judge erred in excluding the statement made to the father.
Simmons said the statement should have been admitted “to respond to an implicit allegation of recent fabrication and to provide overall context for the jury about what the appellant had said close in time to the incident.”
The other two appeal judges, Justice Michael Tulloch and Justice David Brown, said the trial judge made the right decision.
The panel unanimously dismissed the other grounds of appeal.