Cloud hangs over cyclist’s death despite dropping of criminal charges against former AG
By Enzo Di Matteo
Former Attorney General Michael Bryant was the picture of composure when he walked into a conference room of the Sheraton Centre Hotel Tuesday afternoon, May 25, to read a statement and take questions from the media about the dropping of criminal negligence and dangerous driving charges against him in the death of bike courier Darcy Allan Sheppard.
Pouring himself a glass of water without so much as a hint of nerves – no shaking of the hand or quiver of the lip you might expect at a public moment of reckoning – Bryant calmly and confidently stared down the assembled with the aplomb of a seasoned political pro.
The only hiccups in the carefully orchestrated event: his answers to the questions he knew would be coming about the night last August when Sheppard died – slammed into a fire hydrant while hanging onto Bryant’s car after a minor car-bike collision and a shouting match.
Why did Bryant keep his foot on the accelerator when Sheppard was clinging to the car? Why afterwards did he drive his damaged car to a nearby hotel? Why did he not call police immediately?
We still don’t know, really.
All Bryant could say, before his PR adviser put a stop to this line of questioning, was that it all happened very quickly: 28 seconds.
This moment was meant for contrition, but little of that emotion was shown, much like in the hours after the August 31 incident when Bryant emerged showered and suited from the cop shop, a team of crack PR spinners from Navigator working for him behind the scenes, to read a prepared statement to the press.
From what Bryant said Tuesday, it sounds like he wouldn’t have done anything differently that night except maybe linger a few minutes longer at the Danforth resto he and his wife visited earlier that evening to celebrate their anniversary.
Small consolation for Sheppard, whose vilification in the media continues. It’s now being reported that besides wrestling with the demons of alcohol addiction and childhood abuse, Sheppard may have had psychiatric problems.
It’s hard to figure who’s been on trial in the intervening months, given some of the details that have emerged in the press about Sheppard’s life, through leaks or otherwise – a final indignity from a society that, from cradle to grave, failed the victim here.
Much is being made of the fact that his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit on the night he died.
And he’d had other run-ins with motorists in the weeks leading up to the incident involving Bryant.
It was the latter point that Richard Peck, the special prosecutor from BC recruited to review the case, seized on to conclude that there was no reasonable prospect of conviction and charges against Bryant should therefore be dropped.
Peck explains it this way in an 11-page summation read into the record in court: “No one is entitled to commit a criminal offence because the victim of that offence has a prior criminal record or has engaged in past aggressive conduct. No one ‘deserves’ to have a criminal offence committed against him, regardless of his background or prior conduct.
“The deceased’s propensity for aggressiveness or violence, however, is relevant to considering whether the accused was attacked by the deceased and to show the probability that the deceased was the aggressor in the altercation.”
The alleged prior incidents, half a dozen in all, aren’t exactly air-tight from a defence point of view, but Sheppard’s not here to defend himself, so they’re the only truth, besides Bryant’s version, the Crown seems to have relied upon.
One of these incidents several years ago involved a 76-year-old woman who may have cut him off in traffic. She described Sheppard as “like a mad man” when he chased her car on his bike afterwards.
Another involved allegations made by a woman about a cyclist weaving aggressively through traffic whom she believed to be Sheppard.
A third person who told her story to prosecutors alleged that she witnessed a cyclist riding erratically and appearing to reach into the driver’s-side window of a car to grab the steering wheel. She thinks the cyclist in question could have been Sheppard, but was not absolutely certain.
About the only concrete evidence against Sheppard – that is, evidence that didn’t involve individuals who saw his picture in the paper and went to the Crown with their stories – are photos taken by an onlooker from an office building above an incident in which Sheppard is shown hanging onto a vehicle.
But whether any of these incidents and others would have been admissible in court had the Bryant charges gone forward is debatable.
It’s arguable that none of them are material to the charges.
Sheppard’s actions involving other motorists, whatever they may have been, should have little or no bearing on whether Bryant’s actions behind the wheel of the car that night were justified. Any good lawyer can tell you that. NDP justice critic Peter Kormos has pointed out as much.
It’s Bryant’s actions that are supposed to be on trial, not Sheppard’s. But in this case, most of the onus seems to have been placed on the shoulders of the guy who ended up dead.
The legal test missing in Peck’s legal appraisal is whether it was in the public interest to proceed with the charges against Bryant. Clearly, it was.
Bryant is a high-profile person who was charged with very serious offenses. It should have been left to a judge and/or jury to decide whether his actions constituted criminal behaviour.
As Kormos rightly pointed out in his own press conference Tuesday, “It’s important for justice not only to be done but to be seen to be done.”
Would an average citizen have been accorded the same latitude by the Crown?
Obviously, the cops had grounds – or thought they did – to lay charges.
It’s unlikely they would have jumped the gun on this one, given the media scrutiny the case received because Bryant is a former cabinet minister.
So what happened?
Bryant pled self-defence, telling prosecutors he accidentally hit the back of Sheppard’s bike when the latter veered in front of him while he was driving on Bloor, and then stalled his car when he tried to restart it to move away.
At that point his car lurched forward, hitting Sheppard and causing him to land on the hood. Yet the Crown found that Sheppard “was agitated and angry, without any provocation from Mr. Bryant or his wife,” who was riding in the passenger seat.
Bryant said he panicked and tried to get away as Sheppard tried to climb into his vehicle.
Several eyewitnesses reported seeing Bryant’s car violently swerving and driving onto the sidewalk to dislodge Sheppard from the car.
Peck says their accounts of the accident “vary considerably,” including reports that Bryant was driving at a speeds of 60 to 100 kilometres an hour.
According to expert analysis, says Peck, the vehicle was travelling at about 34 km/h when a fire hydrant on the sidewalk caught Sheppard on his left side, dislodged him from the car and he struck his head on the curb or raised portion of the roadway.
Bryant’s vehicle travelled about 100 metres with Sheppard on it.
But Peck says there was none of the “proof of a reckless or wanton disregard of the lives and safety of others” on Bryant’s part required for a conviction.
Bryant insisted that his is not a story about class, privilege or politics. He said the justice system “bends over backwards” to avoid any perception of impropriety when high-profile people like him are arrested.
“Nobody’s above the law,” he said.
Only there will be no trial, so we can’t judge for ourselves.
NOW | May 27-June 3, 2010 | VOL 29 NO 39