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Coroner rules against officer's 'suicide by cop' theory for Sammy Yatim inquest

James Forcillo leaves court in Toronto on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. A coroner has denied a request from a former Toronto police officer who shot a distraught teen on an empty streetcar to explore a theory the youth was committing "suicide by cop." THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — A Toronto police officer's request to explore a theory that a distraught teen he shot was trying to die by "suicide by cop" has been rejected by a coroner overseeing an inquest into the youth's death.

In a ruling released Thursday, presiding officer David Cameron said there is no evidence for James Forcillo's argument that Sammy Yatim tried to cause his own death through an interaction with police.

"I find it mere conjecture that Mr. Yatim sought to end his own life and so orchestrated this confrontation with police to facilitate that wish," Cameron wrote.

The inquest into Yatim's death was set to begin in November but was derailed when Forcillo submitted a last-minute motion arguing the proceeding should consider the theory and examine evidence such as the teen's text messages and web browsing history in the months leading up to the shooting.

Forcillo shot Yatim in July 2013 while the 18-year-old was on an empty streetcar. The shooting set off a wave of public outrage after cell phone footage of what happened was posted online.

Yatim was hit by two separate volleys as he was standing alone while holding a small knife. 

In 2016, a jury acquitted Forcillo of the more serious charge of second-degree murder related to the first round of shots – which, the court heard, killed the teen – but the officer was convicted of attempted murder related to the second volley, fired while Yatim was lying on his back.

Forcillo was sentenced to six and a half years behind bars and was granted full parole in 2020. 

Before the inquest was to begin, Forcillo's lawyers argued that cell phone evidence gave rise to the possibility the teen played some role in bringing about his own death. They said the material should be considered to better understand the teen's state of mind.

Forcillo's lawyers said Yatim's phone showed he had done an online search more than six months before his death on "the easiest way to kill yourself" and that he visited a blog post on "how to commit suicide without feeling any pain."

Cameron rejected those arguments, saying the searches did not occur near the teen's death and it wasn't fully known if Yatim actually made the searches himself. 

He also called evidence put forward by Forcillo "distracting" from the purpose of the inquest, in which a jury will examine the circumstances surrounding Yatim's death and may make recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths.

Cameron said Yatim's behaviour during the police confrontation, such as his apparent surprise and anger at officers' arrival, indicate the teen did not want or seek out police involvement.

"Mr. Yatim's behaviour on the streetcar was confrontational, risky and showed bad decision-making. Medically, he presented as someone in crisis whose behaviour was consistentwith the effect of the drugs found in his body ... possibly confounded by some mental health problems," Cameron wrote.

"There is nothing in his behaviour that could lead to reasonable inference, without further evidence, that Mr. Yatim was suicidal."

Cameron did rule, however, that it will be within the inquest's scope to examine Yatim's state of mind leading up to and during his confrontation with police.

The presiding coroner stressed he expects the inquest's parties to work collaboratively and he will not allow arguments intended to "admonish or vindicate anyone's past behaviour."

Forcillo's lawyer, Bryan Badali, said the officer brought forward his motion because it became clear at a late stage that some parties believed Yatim's state of mind was not relevant to the issues the inquest will consider.

"We are pleased that the coroner agreed that exploration of Mr. Yatim's state of mind at the time of the incident properly falls within the scope of the inquest," said Badali.

Lawyers for Yatim's family had argued Forcillo's motion was an abuse of process and put blame on the teen for his own death without evidence to support the suggestion that he was trying to die by suicide. 

Lawyers for the Toronto police chief and police board also urged Cameron to toss the motion.

Ed Upenieks, the lawyer representing Yatim's father and sister, said the family hoped the decision would allow the inquest to move forward "in a focused and effective way."

Lawyer Asha James, who represents Yatim's mother Sahar Bahadi, said her client was also pleased with the decision.

"Dr. Bahadi is hopeful that the inquest will be rescheduled for the very near future," she wrote in a statement.

"We are coming up on the ten year anniversary of his death this summer and it's time that we have public review and scrutiny of the decisions made that day by members of the police service."

New dates for the inquest have yet to be announced.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press

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