The 19-year-old man who was on trial for the first-degree murder in the hit-and-run death of Calgary police officer, Sgt. Andrew Harnett was found guilty of manslaughter at the Court of King's Bench in Calgary on Thursday afternoon. The man's name is under a publication ban as he was 17 when the offence took place.
In delivering the decision, Justice Anna Loparco said that finding the accused guilty of first-degree murder was a high bar to meet, one that was not met in this case.
"In this case, I can reach no other conclusion than that the accused meant to cause a Sgt. Harnett serious bodily harm. While he may not have desired to hurt the officer team, the accused engaged in actions aimed at pushing him off the vehicle," she said.
On New Year's Eve 2020, Sgt. Harnett was conducting a traffic stop in which the then 17-year-old accused, was the driver of the SUV that Sgt. Harnett stopped. The driver of the vehicle fled the traffic stop with Harnett attached to the vehicle. According to the crown prosecutor, Mike Ewenson's previous assertions during the trial, Sgt. Harnett was holding onto the driver's car door and then ended up briefly on a snow berm before the driver accelerated up to 20 kilometres over the speed limit, which could have been upwards of 80 kilometres/hour. Previous expert testimony posited that the car travelled 427 metres before Harnett fell off and was then struck by an oncoming vehicle.
While she rejected portions of the accused's testimony, saying that he was being evasive and not fulsome in his answers on the stand, she did underline that the accused's testimony of not thinking of the consequences was believable.
"Once the accused made the decision to engage in flight, a chaotic scene instantly became much more frenzied following the discovery that a person was attached to the vehicle as it tore away from the traffic stop. I accept that the chaos the accused had testified to had become even heightened while on the berm. During this period the accused was lawfully being assaulted and was in turn unlawfully assaulting a police officer."
Loparco said that even though the anxiety and fear the accused may have been experiencing were self-induced, she added that this may have contributed to the fatal consequences. Justice Loparco stressed that while the crown prosecution had asked her to completely dismiss the accused's testimony, which she herself said was self-serving and unreliable, she did underline that there was reasonable doubt as to whether the accused fully understood the consequences of his actions and whether he understood that those consequences would likely result in the death of the police officer.
"I cannot ignore the accused's personal background. He testified growing up in a home with domestic abuse; fleeing with his mother from city to city and at times living in shelters on the run from his abusive father. This forms part of how he perceives the world and may have contributed to his irrational and impulsive behaviour including the traffic stop, even after revealing his identity and taking dangerous actions to get out of the situation," she said. "While I agree that the accused did present as relaxed in the courtroom, many of his mannerisms in my view displayed an immaturity or lack of appreciation for the solemnity of the occasion."
Previously, the accused's defence counsel, Zachary Al-Khatib, argued that a first-degree murder sentence would be inappropriate and had petitioned the court for a verdict of guilty of manslaughter, arguing that because the accused, who was 17 at the time of the alleged offence, his thought process, especially the foresight to think of one's actions was not sufficient enough to understand the gravity of the possible consequences.
The 19-year-old driver also took the stand in his own defence during the trial and told the court that the reason he fled from the police that night was that he feared for his life when he claimed that he saw Sgt. Harnett motion for his gun during the traffic stop.
"I look quickly to my left, I look to my mirror and I observed that officer Sergeant Harnett had his hand on his gun and as soon as I saw that, honestly I took off. I was scared. My anxiety was through the roof at this time. I think we were stopped for 40 minutes," the accused previously told the court.
The 19-year-old previously pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder charge and would plead guilty to manslaughter, though the crown rejected his plea and the trial proceeded for first-degree murder. The man who was the passenger in the SUV at the time of the incident, Amir Abdulrahman, was previously sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter. At the end of her decision, Justice Loparco addressed all those who attended court, including the family and friends of the slain officer.
"I know that this has been a difficult and emotional trial for all involved; a grieving family had to revisit testimony surrounding the tragic events of December 31 2020 for the second time. While the accused was found not guilty of murder, I stress that he still has been found guilty of committing a culpable homicide," she said. "I see this so the family appreciates that in finding the accused guilty of manslaughter. I have found he has committed one of the most serious offences contained in our criminal code."
The 19-year-old was remanded to custody until sentencing.
Sgt. Harnett was a 12-year veteran of the Calgary Police Service. Previously, he served as a military police officer. He was promoted to Sergeant in 2019 and was assigned to District 5 in Calgary. He died in the hospital on December 31, 2020, an hour after the hit-and-run.
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