The trial surrounding a fatal snowmobile crash on Newfoundland's west coast came to an emotional ending Monday night in Corner Brook Supreme Court, as the head juror read out verdicts that found Thomas Whittle guilty of all three charges he faced.
The three verdicts — that convicted Whittle of dangerous driving causing death, impaired driving causing death, and driving with a blood alcohol content above 80 milligrams per 100 millitres of blood, resulting in an accident causing death — were met with silence from Whittle himself, and tears and muffled sobs from Justyn Pollard's family, seated in the courtroom.
Pollard died of his injuries following the crash at Humber Valley Resort in the early morning hours of Feb. 19, 2017. He and Whittle had left a chalet at the resort and were aboard a snowmobile when it collided with a taxi on the bridge that spans the Humber River at the resort's entrance.
Pollard was 21 years old.
The verdicts marked the jury's rejection of Whittle's assertions during the trial that he had not been operating the snowmobile at the time of the crash, and that despite riding in front, ahead of Pollard, it had been Pollard's hands on the handlebars.
After the verdicts, Crown attorney Renee Coates said the Crown would be seeking a federal sentence for Whittle, as well as asking that Whittle's bail — which has allowed him to live in the community for the past few years, under strict conditions — be revoked.
But Justice George Murphy said Whittle, from Conception Bay South, has complied with those conditions, and he may remain out on bail until his sentencing on April 8. Murphy noted that Whittle's convictions are serious, and carry "significant custodial sentences."
Whittle quickly left the courtroom, as Pollard's family lingered and comforted each other, sayingthat while "justice was served," two lives had been ruined by the course of events, "for no reason." They declined an interview with CBC News.
Verdict ends long day of proceedings
The verdicts, delivered shortly before 9 p.m., marked an end of about four hours of jury deliberations and a long day of court proceedings that began at 10 a.m..
Court began Monday morning with the closing arguments in the trial, hearing from Coates, Whittle — who represented himself at trial — and submissions from Randy Piercey, a defence lawyer appointed by the court to assist Whittle in his defence.
Whittle spoke first, reading a prepared statement that began by saying the investigation into the crash was "faulted from the beginning," he told the court. He questioned the credibility of several of the Crown's witnesses, such as the cab driver who saw a vehicle coming toward the taxi, pulled over and told his passengers to brace for impact, or close friends of Pollard's who took the stand to testify about the hours prior to the crash.
Earlier in the trial, which began Jan. 13, Whittle took the stand in his own defence, and on Monday repeated that despite sitting at the front of the 2015 Bombardier Freestyle, he wasn't operating it. Instead, he said, Pollard stretched his arms from behind him to control the handlebars. Whittle said a video still from resort security footage, shown to the court, was too dark and pixelated to show definitively who was operating the machine.
Whittle has said he can't remember the crash itself, only "a strange light ahead" of the snowmobile in the moments before impact. First responders to the scene, as well as occupants of the taxi, recalled seeing Whittle dazed but conscious after the crash, while Pollard was unresponsive in the snow.
On Monday, Whittle detailed the hardships of the years since the crash: he lost his job, was bedridden for a year and had to relearn to walk with the help of physiotherapy.
"I have lost much of my life," he told the jury, saying he hoped to move on from the charges and regain his independence.
Members of Pollard's family sat quietly in the courtroom throughout Monday's proceedings, which involved all jurors and court staff physically distanced from one another.
Crown urges 'common sense'
Coates maintained that Whittle was guilty of all counts and centred her closing arguments around logic.
Whittle was in control of the snowmobile, she said, pointing to the testimony of a witness who said he had seen Whittle driving shortly before the crash. She said it was "illogical" to assume he and Pollard switched positions, as Whittle had previously testified, in the short distance between the chalet and the bridge.
She also pointed to the still image, saying it "speaks for itself" that the person riding in back did not have their hands or arms anywhere near the snowmobile's handlebars.
"Rely upon your own common sense," Coates told the jurors.
She brought up testimony from some of the Crown's 20 witnesses, including the RCMP expert in toxicology who concluded the toxicology report from Whittle's blood-testing showed blood-alcohol content of over 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood, as well as Whittle himself saying he drank three beers on top of earlier ones prior to boarding the snowmobile.
After closing arguments and submissions, Justice George Murphy instructed the jurors on how to deliberate and, via a random draw, winnowed the jury from 14 people to 12, who were then dismissed to deliberate behind closed doors.
Those deliberations took less than four hours.