Jury trial begins for Alberta RCMP officers charged with manslaughter in 2018 shooting death

Const. Jessica Brown and Cpl. Randy Stegner, right, leave court in Edmonton on Monday.  Brown and Stegner of the Whitecourt RCMP are charged with manslaughter in the 2018 death of Clayton Crawford, as well as aggravated assault.  (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Const. Jessica Brown and Cpl. Randy Stegner, right, leave court in Edmonton on Monday. Brown and Stegner of the Whitecourt RCMP are charged with manslaughter in the 2018 death of Clayton Crawford, as well as aggravated assault. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press - image credit)

It will be up to an Edmonton jury to decide if a pair of Alberta RCMP officers are guilty of manslaughter or if they acted in self-defence when they gunned down a suspect more than four years ago.

Const. Jessica Brown and Cpl. Randy Stenger are each charged with manslaughter and aggravated assault in the July 3, 2018 shooting death of Clayton Crawford at a rest stop outside Whitecourt. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The shooting was investigated by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, but criminal charges were not laid until June 2020.

Two Crown prosecutors from Toronto are presenting the case to the nine-women, five-men jury that was sworn in Monday morning.

"This is not a whodunit," Crown prosecutor Linda Shin told the jury in her opening address. "There's no question who fired the gunshots."

Shin said Crawford, 31, died from 10 gunshot wounds that caused massive blood loss. According to the Crown, Brown fired her semi-automatic carbine rifle eight times, while Stenger fired his semi-automatic service revolver three times.

"As you will hear, he [Crawford] did not brandish any weapons from inside the truck," Shin said. "He never stepped outside the truck."

The prosecutors allege that the Mounties "lacked the legal authority to approach the truck in the manner they did with the information they had, or more importantly the information they did not have."

The lawyers representing Brown and Stenger told the jury their clients acted in self-defence and made a necessary, split-second decision.

"Their lives were in danger," Brown's lawyer, Robb Beeman said in his opening address. "The decision to shoot was made in seconds."

The jury was told that both accused will testify in their own defence.

Shooting the day before

The day before Crawford died, there was a shooting at his house in Valhalla Centre, a hamlet more than 350 kilometres northwest of Whitecourt.

"The officers investigating that shooting believed Mr. Crawford was inside the home with his girlfriend when shots were fired into the house," Shin told the jury.

At the time, RCMP believed Crawford could have been the intended target over a suspected drug debt.

Crawford's girlfriend was shot in the leg and had to be airlifted for emergency surgery. Meanwhile, witnesses saw a number of vehicles fleeing the scene after the shooting, including a distinctive purple 26-year-old Dodge Dakota, believed to be Crawford's vehicle.

 Dana Illerbrun
Dana Illerbrun

About 24 hours later, an off-duty RCMP officer spotted the purple truck at a rest stop west of Whitecourt. He called it in and four Mounties were dispatched to check out the vehicle.

Defence lawyer Beeman told the jury that the officers all had hard body armour because it was considered to be a high-risk call.

"[Brown] was told there could be a firearm in that truck and she should be careful and cautious," Beeman said. "She'd been told that the truck could be occupied by the shooter or the intended victim who's wanted by police on warrants.

"The next 40 seconds is what this trial is about."

Beeman told the jury that three of the officers slowly and cautiously approached the truck on foot.

At first, they weren't sure if anyone was inside the vehicle, but when they got close enough, Brown spotted a man sleeping in the driver's seat. All the officers had their guns pointed at the suspect.

Beeman said they identified themselves as police officers, knocked on the driver's window and yelled, "You're under arrest. Show us your hands."

According to the defence lawyer, Crawford put his hands up for a couple of seconds and then dropped them.

One of the officers broke the window with his baton and reached through the broken glass, trying to control Crawford.

Beeman said the officers managed to unlock the door and Brown leaned into the truck, to try and stop Crawford from reaching down for a weapon or trying to start the truck.

He said suddenly the truck started and Crawford began to drive forward.

All of the activity was captured on video taken by three RCMP in-car cameras, which will be played for the jury later in the week.

"Then you'll see the truck stops," Beeman said. "The driver throws that truck into reverse. He begins to aggressively back up. Brown may tell you she was running for her life."

The defence said the truck missed Brown "by inches" before Stenger and Brown began shooting. The two officers fired 11 shots in three seconds, he said.

"She [Brown] does this as she's trained," Beeman told the jury. "Continue to shoot until the threat is stopped."

After the shooting, the jury was told the truck sped off, but came to a stop at a tree line.

Once officers established there was no movement in the truck, they approached the vehicle and found Crawford deceased.

According to Beeman, Mounties found a large butcher knife under Crawford and a large machete under the seat.

Defence lawyer Mona Duckett, representing Stenger, described the outcome as "tragic".

"He [Stenger] discharged his gun when he felt he had no other choice," Duckett said. "His life was at risk."

The Crown is asking the jury to find the two accused guilty as charged.

"We will argue they were not entitled or justified in firing the shots that they did," Shin said.

The trial is scheduled to last three weeks.