'You must explain to the public': Prosecutor criticized after RCMP assault charges stayed

·4 min read
Cst. Francessca Bechard with her lawyer, Robb Beeman, left, and Cpl. Jason Archer, right. Bechard and Archer were each facing one count of assault for an alleged excessive use of force on a prisoner in October 2020. Those were stayed in court on Wednesday but no reason was given for why.   (CBC News - image credit)
Cst. Francessca Bechard with her lawyer, Robb Beeman, left, and Cpl. Jason Archer, right. Bechard and Archer were each facing one count of assault for an alleged excessive use of force on a prisoner in October 2020. Those were stayed in court on Wednesday but no reason was given for why. (CBC News - image credit)

An Alberta based lawyer advocating for reform around police prosecution said a Crown prosecutor owes the public an explanation for why assault charges against two Yellowknife RCMP officers were stayed in Northwest Territories territorial court this week.

Tom Engel is the chair of Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association's Policing Committee — an Alberta based group, dedicated to educating the public and governments on issues of criminal justice.

"People pay attention to this sort of thing. And the prosecutor must serve the public interest," he said.

"To do that, you must explain to the public why you made a decision, either why to prosecute or not to prosecute."

Jamie McCannel/CBC
Jamie McCannel/CBC

RCMP Const. Francessca Bechard and Cpl. Jason Archer were each charged with one count of assault for their use of force against prisoner Tracella Romie in 2020 at the Yellowknife detachment.

The trial began Monday.

On Wednesday, those charges were stayed after prosecutor Greg Lyndon told the court there wasn't a "reasonable prospect of conviction."

Lyndon refused to comment further.

It was the Crown prosecutor's office that recommended the two officers be charged, based on an investigation by the Alberta RCMP. CBC reached out to the national office of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) to find out why it concluded a conviction was unlikely after the trial had already begun.

"Crown counsel must continually assess its case at all stages of the proceedings to ensure that there remains a reasonable prospect of conviction, and that it's in the public interest to prosecute," Nathalie Houle, a spokesperson for the PPSC, wrote in an email.

"In this matter, the Crown determined that there was no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction and stayed the charges in accordance with the policies contained in the PPSC Deskbook."

Engel said this refusal to explain is part of a larger issue in the criminal justice system around holding police officers accountable.

"When they don't explain it, it leads to people speculating about reasons for that and forming the opinion that there's a double standard going on here when it comes to prosecuting police officers compared to anything else," he said.

A charge being stayed means the legal proceedings are paused either temporarily or indefinitely. In the vast majority of cases, stayed charges result in no further action.

Lawyers for the two officers celebrated the decision.

"I'm obviously very pleased with the stay of proceedings," said Robb Beeman, who served as the defence lawyer for Const. Bechard. "I sort of view this to be a complete vindication of her actions."

Fellow officers recommended charges

The two Yellowknife officers were charged after another senior officer reported their handling of Romie's detainment.

The officer in charge of the detachment requested a criminal investigation, which the Alberta RCMP completed.

The investigation was then sent to the Crown's office for evaluation, an RCMP release said, and the Crown recommended charges. This means the RCMP found grounds for charges, which Engel said is uncommon.

"That's very rare for the RCMP and I have to think that it must be because those two officers did their duty and what they saw and heard was unacceptable," he said, referring to the two officers who testified in the trial.

"And for some reason the Crown disagreed with those two officers and it's baffling,"

Engel's organization recommends that jurisdictions create specialized prosecutors office's who focus on police trials.

Loren McGinnis/CBC
Loren McGinnis/CBC

'This is wrong'

Stanley Sanguez is the interim Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations.

He said it's unacceptable that police investigate themselves in situations like this.

Sanguez added, the fact that the prosecutor stayed the charges without an explanation further erodes any faith he has in Canada's criminal justice system.

"This is wrong," he said. "There's no judicial system for Indigenous people."

Sanguez said he has previously reached out to R.J. Simpson, the territorial minister of Justice, to share his concerns of how Indigenous people are treated in the N.W.T. justice system.

Video not being released to public

The prosecutor played several videos that show what happened inside the detachment's booking area. The videos are on a thumb drive that was entered as an exhibit in the trial.

CBC News asked prosecutor Lyndon for copies of the videos, even offering a thumb drive to copy them to. Lyndon said he would have to check with his boss. He later said they would not be providing copies, explaining his boss had said he wants the case tried in court not in the media.

CBC News has retained a lawyer in an effort to have the videos released to the public.

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