Last week a coroner’s inquest jury in New Brunswick returned a verdict of homicide in the Ashley Smith case.
Smith was the young New Brunswick woman who asphyxiated after wrapping a piece of cloth around her neck in a prison cell at Grand Valley Institution for Women, a federal prison in Kitchener, Ontario in 2007 while guards looked on.
It was reported that there were gasps in the inquest room when the verdict came down and the question immediately arose: Who killed her?
There are a lot of misconceptions about coroner’s inquests.
First, they are not about assigning responsibility. In fact, under the Coroner’s Act, it is the coroner’s responsibility to ensure juries understand they are explicitly not to lay blame.
Second, homicide does not mean the same thing in the context of a coroner’s inquest as it does to the common vernacular. Inquests are charged with classifying a death accidental, natural, suicide, homicide or unknown.
In coroner’s parlance, homicide means the death occurred as the result of the action (or inaction, perhaps) of another person or persons. Homicide in this setting is not synonymous with murder.
Howard Sapers, the federal Correctional Investigator, said he wasn’t expecting the verdict, but that it did not surprise him. Me neither.
Several guards and one supervisor were originally charged with criminal negligence. According to Canadian Press, corrections officers, who were “under orders from senior management against intervening as long as she was still breathing, waited too long to enter her cell and save her.” The charges were later dropped, but clearly a verdict of homicide was highly likely.
Now, Smith’s family is calling for the criminal investigation to be reopened. Their lawyer, Julian Falconer, doesn’t want the guards to be re-investigated but immediately called for a new police investigation and wants the people at the top of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) held accountable.
“CSC, in my decades of work in this area, has proven they are an uncontrollable, unaccountable body,” he said. “It is shameful.”
He particularly targeted Don Head, CSC commissioner—who during the inquest warned the jury against making recommendations that would be too expensive to implement—demanding his resignation.
The jury came back with 104 recommendations, which, and this brings me to my final point about the misconceptions surrounding coroner’s inquests, are non-binding.
The legitimate concern here is if inquests don’t find fault, if a finding of homicide does not lead to criminal charges and the recommendations that come forth are non-binding, what is the point?
I became familiar with coroner’s inquests first-hand when I was covering the shooting death of a young Houston, B.C. man by a new constable in an RCMP interview room in October 2005. Cst. Paul Koester, just six months on the force, arrested Ian Bush, a 22-year-old millworker in the northern B.C. lumber town for having an open beer outside a hockey game between the local Luckies and rival Smithers Steelheads.
A couple of hours later, Bush was dead with a bullet in the back of his skull.
The inquest heard a recounting of events that, to be blunt, was simply not believable, and the tale of an internal RCMP investigation that, to be brief, raised more questions than it answered.
The verdict in that case was also homicide. Bush died as the result of the actions of another person, who, as it turned out, was already back on duty in a town just a few hours drive from Houston long before the inquest ever took place.
The results of the inquest were, however, the foundation for a civil suit, which four-and-half years after her son’s death, Bush’s mother Linda, finally dropped after exhausting more than $130,000 in donations from supporters across the country. At the time, it was unclear, even to her, how much of the decision was out of fatigue, how much was the financial burden and how much was that the national police force’s handling of in-custody deaths had actually changed as the result of the inquest’s recommendations and the Bush family’s input.
In any event, Linda said she felt much more comfortable with the Mounties by the end of the process.
Still, it is exceptionally difficult to track if, and how much, things actually change.
A big part of the problem is that, while in-custody deaths are both infrequent and, at the same time, far too common, each individual incident tends to be unique. And, given the excruciatingly long timelines, crippling legal costs and inertia of the monolithic institutions involved, they tend to eventually just disappear into the fog of time.
I had a fair bit of contact with Linda Bush, Ian Bush’s sisters, other family members, some of his friends and numerous colleagues of Paul Koester’s during the two-and-a-half years I covered that story. Even so, I have only an inkling of what they all went through.
Ashley Smith’s family has been dealing with her death for six years already. Undoubtedly, they still have a very long road ahead, I can barely even imagine what it’s like for them.
Sapers said processes are already improving at CSC, but it makes me a little uncomfortable that we basically have to take it on faith that something good comes out of these things.
We will never stop bad things from happening, but when they do, there simply must be a more efficient, more humane way to handle them than dragging these families through the legal mire for years on end.