The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Peter Khill, a Hamilton-area man who was initially acquitted in the 2016 shooting death of Jon Styres, must face a new trial.
The trial judge failed to give instructions to jurors on the way in which Khill's role in the shooting should be used to assess the reasonableness of his conduct, Justice Sheilah Martin, in writing for the majority, said in the decision released Thursday.
"Mr. Khill's role in the incident should have been expressly drawn to the attention of the jury," Martin wrote. "The absence of any explanation concerning the legal significance of Mr. Khill's role in the incident was a serious error."
Styres, a 29-year-old from Six Nations of the Grand River, was killed around 3 a.m. ET on Feb. 4, 2016.
After the decision was handed down, CBC spoke to members of his family who said they were "relieved" by the court's judgment and preparing to go through another trial.
Khill's lawyers issued a brief statement that said he remains "innocent in the eyes of the law" and "looks forward to defending the matter fully and vigorously at his new trial."
On Thursday, the Supreme Court laid out the facts of what happened on the night of the shooting, saying Khill, who served as a part-time army reservist from 2007 to 2011, was woken up and saw the dashboard lights of his truck were on.
He grabbed his shotgun from the bedroom closet, loaded it with two shells and "quietly" approached the truck using a back door, barefoot and wearing only a T-shirt and underwear, according to the judgment.
Khill saw someone bent over the passenger seat and yelled, "Hey, hands up," and when the person turned toward him, Khill fired twice, it reads.
The person was later identified as Styres. The judgment states he was shot in the chest and shoulder and, when Khill searched him, did not find a gun — only a folding knife that was in his pocket.
Khill told a 911 dispatcher and police that he fired in self-defence, believing Styres had a gun.
Styres family 'stronger' this time
Debbie Hill, Styres's mother, told CBC the family had been "waiting and waiting" for a decision from Canada's highest court.
His aunt, Rhonda Johns, agreed it was a long wait, but said the family was encouraged by the outcome.
"I'm relieved and I'm glad to hear that we're going into trial," she said. "Hopefully we have justice for Jonathan once this is all over and for others who may be in the same situation."
Johns said she believes the Supreme Court's decision shows Khill could have called 911, rather than confronting Styres with a shotgun, a suggestion the Crown raised during the initial trial.
She added that first trial was hard for the family, but they're prepared to go through another.
"This time we're stronger."
First trial held in 2018
Khill was found not guilty of second-degree murder following a 12-day trial in June 2018, but the Crown appealed the verdict. A unanimous ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal said the trial judge failed to instruct the jury to consider Khill's conduct before he pulled the trigger.
Khill's lawyers responded by appealing to Canada's top court, arguing what their client did leading up to the shooting should not change the fact he fired in self-defence.
The Supreme Court dismissed that appeal on Thursday and ordered a new trial.
Justice Martin stated the charge to jurors failed to direct them to consider all of Khill's "actions, omissions and exercises of judgment throughout the entirety of the incident."
That may have left a "misleading impression" that the evaluation of how reasonable Khill's actions were should focus on the "mere instant" between when Khill believed Styres had a gun and when he shot him, explained Martin.
"Where a person confronts a trespasser, thief or source of loud noises in a way that leaves little alternative for either party to kill or be killed, the accused's role in the incident will be significant," she stated.
Martin added that if the jury that acquitted Khill in 2018 had been properly instructed, it may have reached a different conclusion.
The decision in favour of a new trial was 8-1, though three of the Supreme Court justices reached the same conclusion for different reasons.
Justice Michael Moldaver wrote on behalf of the concurring justices, stating it was their opinion that when it comes to evaluating the reasonableness of someone's prior conduct, it must hit a "threshold of wrongfulness" that would impact the justification of self-defence.
"In this case, I am satisfied that a properly instructed jury could find that Mr. Khill's prior conduct, leading up to his use of lethal force, was excessive, such that it could constitute a 'role in the incident,'" he wrote.
Justice Suzanne Côté dissented from the majority opinion, saying the trial judge, in his jury instruction, covered all of the circumstances leading up to the shooting. She wrote she would have allowed the appeal and restored Khill's acquittal.
Indigenous leaders following case
Khill's trial has been closely followed by Indigenous communities and leaders as it raised similar legal issues to the controversial case in Saskatchewan involving the death of Colten Boushie.
Boushie, a Cree man, was shot and killed by Gerald Stanley on Stanley's farm in August 2016. A not guilty verdict was reached by a jury with no visibly Indigenous members.
The decision led to protests across Canada and a pledge from federal ministers and the prime minister to change "systemic issues" in the justice system.
Unlike the Stanley verdict, the 12 people who decided Khill should be acquitted were screened for racial bias, and asked whether the fact the accused was white and the victim was Indigenous would affect how they viewed evidence.
Race was not raised in evidence during the Khill trial. In his closing arguments, Khill's defence lawyer said that in the pre-dawn pitch dark, there was no way his client could have known Styres was a First Nations man.