A St. John's judge has dismissed nearly all charges against nine correctional officers accused of causing the death of an inmate under their care.
Judge Pamela Goulding handed down her decision Friday morning not to allow the matter to proceed to trial, offering a scathing critique of the prosecution's case and informing the court that she found all correctional officers had acted calmly and professionally.
Her decision marks a significant step in a two-year criminal ordeal involving the inmate's grieving family and the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Justice.
The guards, all employees at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, had been charged with the following in connection with the death of 33-year-old Jonathan Henoche:
Jason Anthony, manslaughter.
Jeff Thistle, manslaughter and failure to provide necessaries of life.
David Constantine, manslaughter.
Chris Coady, negligence causing death.
Daniel Dalton, negligence causing death.
Scott Dwyer, negligence causing death.
Jenine Rickert, negligence causing death.
Riley Ricks, negligence causing death.
Lori Williams, negligence causing death.
One charge — failure to provide necessaries of life — is still outstanding against Thistle.
Henoche, an Inuk man from Nain, N.L., was in St. John's while awaiting a first-degree murder trial. He was accused of killing Regula Schule, 88, in 2016.
He died in custody on Nov. 6, 2019. After a yearlong investigation, the RNC announced on Dec. 21, 2020, that they had arrested several prison workers in relation to Henoche's death.
Henoche was being held in protective custody at Her Majesty's Penitentiary at the time of his death.
Guards 'orderly and calm'
Evidence submitted at the preliminary inquiry remained under a publication ban until Goulding's decision Friday.
Almost the entire interaction between the accused guards and Henoche on the day of his death was documented on video.
That footage showed an altercation between a guard and Henoche, Goulding said, that led to both men throwing punches and left them equally bloodied.
Another guard stepped in to subdue Henoche, who continued to resist. "Both officers feared for their safety," Goulding said.
The guards then called a "code grey," sending the other inmates of unit 2B into their cells and calling available officers to restrain Henoche. He was brought by elevator to a segregation cell, flanked by guards, who remained "orderly and calm" throughout, the judge said.
Henoche was then strip-searched behind a privacy curtain, according to institutional policy — the only moments during the interaction when he was not visible to the camera.
Officers then attempted to place Henoche in leg irons before administering medical assistance, she said, continuing to follow policy with regards to inmates with a history of violence.
That involved one of the guards placing his knee on Henoche's tailbone. All officers left the cell once Henoche was restrained, and monitored him by video.
He remained alone for under four minutes until guards noticed he required medical attention and attempted to resuscitate him.
His autopsy revealed some bruising, but did not conclude any anatomical cause of death, Goulding said.
Crown offered no evidence of unlawful acts
Goulding's decision came down harshly on Crown prosecutors, who submitted no expert testimony on the excessive use of force and "did not elucidate [their] theory" on why any of the guards should be tried.
She called their case "most unfortunate," adding she was left without any evidence of assault, negligence or any unlawful act.
According to the evidence that was submitted, each of the guards acted in a "professional and dutiful manner," she said, describing their controlled movements throughout the interaction with Henoche.
To take the case to trial would "elevate the great prospect of wrongful conviction," she added.
Lead prosecutor Sheldon Steeves declined to comment "pending further review of the decision and the file," he told CBC News in an email.
'Not these officers' fault'
The case, shrouded in secrecy from its outset, has prompted criticism about transparency and raised questions about the unusual decision to release the guards charged with manslaughter on bail.
The accused officers, their families and their lawyers filled three courtrooms Friday morning, emotions running high.
"Their names have been in the paper, they haven't been able to work. Their lives have been upended. They've been dealing with the stress of these proceedings with very serious charges over their heads," said defence lawyer Lynn Moore, who represents Riley Ricks.
"Everyone is devastated that this man died. Nobody wants to see a 33-year-old prisoner die in custody. It is a tragedy, but it is not these officers' fault," Moore said.
"We were never able to understand why these people were charged in the first place ... Sometimes people die, and no one is responsible."
Defence lawyer Rosellen Sullivan told reporters prosecutors may decide to file a direct indictment.
"They still have options here," Sullivan said. "While everybody's very relieved ... I don't think anyone should be under any illusion that this is definitely the end. There are proper legal avenues that can be taken."
Henoche's family, represented by lawyer Bob Buckingham, has filed a lawsuit against the provincial government, alleging the justice system failed to care for the 33-year-old, who they say had fetal alcohol syndrome and impulse control issues.
The government filed its response late Thursday.