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Witnesses don’t always get it right

September 4, 2009 Leave a comment

I can’t recall an event in the recent past that has aroused such public interest and emotion right across Canada.

I’m referring to the tragic street accident involving the former Attorney General of Ontario, Michael Bryant, and the bicycle courier, Darcey Allan Sheppard.

As I write, this, The Globe and Mail web site has no less than four stories about this case highlighted on its home page.

Anyone within sight of Canadian media knows the basic facts: Bryant, 43, is driving his pricy Saab convertible along Bloor Street about 10 o’clock at night. He’s on his way home after a night out with his wife — a modest snack and a walk on the beach marking their wedding anniversary.

There’s a minor collision with Sheppard’s bicycle. Seems that the 33-year-old Sheppard passes Bryant and perhaps cuts him off. Then things get ugly.

In an instant, Sheppard is clinging to the side of Bryant’s car as it speeds off. The car veers onto the wrong side of the road, Sheppard is smashed against some poles and a mail box. He falls off, unconscious.

Bryant drives around the corner, pulls in beside the Park Hyatt Hotel, and calls police. Other 911 calls go in. Responders take Sheppard to Mt. Sinai hospital, where he is pronounced dead.

Bryant is arrested at the scene. He is photographed in the back seat of a police cruiser. Later, he is charged with criminal negligence causing death, and dangerous driving.

Here you have the irresistible combination of fame and folly. In an instant, the career of a high profile over-achiever is on the rocks. Bryant has resigned as CEO of Invest Toronto. His hope of someday being Premier of Ontario may have vanished. Worse, a man is dead.

The media are quick to the scene. Initial interviews with witnesses paint a deplorable chain of events. One says the driver (Bryant) deliberately smashed his car into poles so as to injure the bike courier. Here’s a clip of the early TV coverage:

You can see a sympathetic picture being created of the victim. All very understandable.

Later, it comes out that Sheppard has been drinking that evening, has left his girlfriend’s house despite her wish that he not try to bike his way home. A neighbor says he was so drunk he fell off his bike. Sheppard’s girl friend calls the police, asking them to take him to his place. They refuse. One officer comments later “We are the Toronto Police, not the Toronto Taxi Service.”

More information comes out about the courier. It’s learned there are outstanding criminal charges against him in his hometown of Edmonton. Not necessarily relevant to this horrific accident. But part of the story nonetheless.

Canadians love to see a successful person get their come-uppance. “Who does he think he is?” is a favorite Canadian putdown.

There’s an outcry that Bryant will get favored treatment. Hardly seems likely to me. He’s charged within a day. An outside special prosecutor, a prominent Vancouver lawyer, is brought in. There’s talk that an out-of-province judge may be needed when the case comes to trial in October. Bryant, as Attorney General, appointed many of the judges serving on the Ontario bench.

The story’s a big one partly because it raises the compelling question of whether Bryant will ever be able to restore his reputation. One of the pieces in The Globe today discusses the question, citing the ordeals suffered by other famous names who have struggled to rehabilitate their public image.

The cases raises all kinds of issues. One of the big ones is the co-existence of bikes and cars on the same busy streets. Toronto’s been pushing to restrict car lanes in favor of bicycle routes. Is this the best way to “calm” the street? There’s a lot of animosity out there right now. Are the changes being made to our streets contributing to the increased level of road rage that’s being reported?

I think there’s one lesson we should learn from this. Initial witness reports can’t always be relied on to give a balanced picture of an occurrence. These reports painted a dreadful portrait of Bryant’s actions. But now, it seems there’s at least a possibility that Sheppard may have had a hand in the car’s erratic path.

Mistakes by witnesses, according to a legal analysis I’ve read, are one of the  big causes of wrongful convictions. The witnesses we’ve heard are honestly reporting what they think they’ve seen. It may turn out that what they thought they saw is not necessarily what actually transpired.

It will be up to the lawyers to argue this out, and to the courts to render a final verdict.

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