The courage of a conviction

Tuesday, August 3, 2004


Written by Scott Piatkowski

"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups -- the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories."

Those familiar words, which have opened every episode of Law and Order since the show debuted in 1990, clearly describe the role of police and the role of prosecutors. Unfortunately, Peel Regional Police Chief Noel Catney appears to be unaware of the distinction.

Last week, at the vastly overdone press conference held to announce that charges had been laid in the murder of 9-year-old Cecilia Zhang, Catney managed to single-handedly try and convict the person who had been arrested. Early in press conference, he held up a mug shot of the accused, 21-year-old exchange student Min Chen, and said: “This is not just a murderer. This is the most despicable of criminals. This is a child murderer.”

At one point, Catney also said that Chen had committed a “terrible, horrendous, devious and senseless crime” and deserved to pay “the ultimate price”. Some have speculated that this choice of words may have been a call for the reintroduction of the death penalty in Canada. If that was the case, then Catney was not only playing the role of police chief, prosecutor, judge and jury – he was actually straying into the role of legislator.

It takes a particular skill to be even more over-the-top than Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino, who also participated in the press conference (which resembled a post-game statement by a winning hockey coach, or even an Oscar acceptance speech). In Toronto, self-congratulation and grandstanding are standard operating tools for the police. That’s one of the key reasons that – appropriately -- Fantino will not be given another term as chief.

Legal experts and reporters were quick to question the propriety of Catney’s remarks (with the notable exception of Christie Blatchford of The Globe and Mail, who has never met a police action that she couldn’t defend). The following comments were typical of the reaction:

a.. David Bayliss, a Toronto defence lawyer who works with the Association in Defence of The Wrongly Convicted noted that “They spoke about this man as if he was already guilty -- from an investigative and legal perspective, it was extremely foolish. That's the sort of thing that really has the ability to taint a jury… it's hard to see how he can get a fair trial in the light of what they've done. This creates exactly the kind of public hysteria that can lead to a wrongful conviction.”

b.. Peter Jacobsen, a lawyer for The Globe and Mail called the comments while displaying the photo “extremely inflammatory… It is unusual to see a police officer become that seemingly emotional about the identification of an accused.”

c.. Toronto defence lawyer Brian Greenspan argued that press conferences such as the one held last week “are undermining the fabric of the justice system… the trial almost becomes an irrelevancy in terms of the public perception of what has occurred. We all have functions within the system, and these press conferences staged by the police demonstrably involve them in parts of the system to which they really have no entitlement to participate.”

d.. Defence lawyer Todd White said Catney “is a reputable, powerful, influential person whose opinion can seep into a potential juror's mind (and his comment) totally violates the presumption of innocence… The most offensive thing that I found was that he and his fellow police officers were totally close-lipped about what the evidence was. That's something they sometimes can rightfully comment on. But they mentioned nothing about the evidence… We're just going to say this particular person is guilty.”

e.. University of Ottawa law professor David Paciocco noted that “from the perspective of a former prosecutor, you would prefer that police not make statements like this… It's dangerous.”

In the face of this criticism, Catney was unrepentant. While admitting that that charge against Chen is just “an allegation by the police”, he darkly hinted at “facts of the case” (which he said he couldn’t disclose) that justified his anger and persisted in maintaining his right to speak out as he had. Appearing on the CBC Radio program Here and Now, Catney told the host that that “the police chief is entitled to his opinion, and that's my opinion...” But, of course, the “opinion” of the chief of police is not the same as an opinion expressed by anyone else – even if (indeed, especially if), as Catney claimed, he was “articulating the majority of sentiment of the community.”

Defence lawyer Alan Gold expressed alarm at Catney’s decision to stand by his comments. “If he can't bring [his emotions] under control, one has to wonder whether he has the right to be a professional police officer,” Gold told CityPulse-24.

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