TORONTO - A Toronto police officer who shot a distraught teen on an empty streetcar argued Wednesday that an inquest should examine whether the youth may have died by "suicide by cop" – a suggestion the teen's family decried as painful and prejudicial.
The inquest into Sammy Yatim's death was supposed to begin last week but was delayed after the lawyer for James Forcillo brought a motion asking the proceeding to consider the possibility of "suicide by cop," where a person behaves threateningly in order to trigger a lethal response from law enforcement.
Forcillo, who was convicted of attempted murder in Yatim's death, argued through his lawyer that the inquest should look at the teen's text messages and web browsing history in the months leading up to the 2013 shooting.
Lawyer Bryan Badali argued the evidence gives rise to the possibility that Yatim played some role in bringing about his own death and the inquest should consider the material to better understand the teen's state of mind.
"Our reasonable, and in our view likely, inference is that his conduct was intentional and designed to provoke the outcome that ensued," Badali said.
"The cell phone evidence may well assist the jury in interpreting Mr. Yatim's conduct on the night in question and the admission of that evidence promotes the ultimate objective of this inquest."
The motion is based on several grounds, including that Yatim did not respond to Forcillo's commands to drop a small knife, that his phone showed he had done an online search more than six months before his death on "the easiest way to kill yourself" and that he visited a blog post on "how to commit suicide without feeling any pain."
Lawyers for Yatim's family asked for the motion to be dismissed, arguing it was an abuse of process and put blame on the teen for his own death without evidence to support the suggestion that he was trying to die by suicide.
"With this motion, Mr. Forcillo is pointing his finger at Sammy when he has already used that same finger on the trigger of his Glock nine times," said Jonah Waxman, a lawyer for Yatim's father and sister.
Waxman argued the request to introduce evidence of Yatim's state of mind was based on speculative information that has already been rejected by the courts. In an appeal of his attempted murder conviction, which was dismissed, Forcillo had argued that a Superior Court Justice was wrong to exclude cellphone and expert evidence about the possibility of suicide by cop at his trial.
"The Yatim family has suffered enough and they are suffering still," said Waxman, who asked for the motion to be "dismissed with prejudice."
"The very act of bringing this motion was distasteful. It has further delayed the inquest and caused unnecessary suffering to the entire family."
Asha James, lawyer for Yatim's mother Sahar Bahadi, said the motion is turning the inquest into a trial of the teen.
"I'm sure if we searched the phone of many 18-year-old individuals, we would find that many of them are disgruntled, they have lots of things that are going on in their life that could make them upset or unhappy," said James. "That doesn't mean they're depressed and suicidal."
Anita Szigeti, a lawyer representing the Empowerment Council, which has expertise in police interactions with people in crisis, also opposed the motion, calling it "outrageous."
There's potential for a "devastating effect" on people with mental health issues, speech difficulties and intellectual disabilities if failure to respond to police is seen as a provocation that justifies use of lethal force, Szigeti said.
A lawyer for the Toronto Police Services Board said the evidence would unnecessarily cast Yatim in a negative light while a lawyer for the force's police chief said the motion's requests are outside the scope of the inquest.
Meanwhile, lawyer Shanna Ferrone, who represents the coroner's office, argued that cell phone evidence suggests things had started looking up for Yatim in the weeks before his death as texts showed he had found a shared home in Toronto to live in after his father kicked him out.
Forcillo fired two separate volleys at Yatim as the 18-year-old was standing alone holding a small knife on an empty streetcar in July 2013.
The shooting set off a wave of public outrage and protests after cell phone footage of what happened was posted online.
In 2016, a jury acquitted Forcillo of the more serious charge of second-degree murder related to the first round of shots – which, the court heard, killed the teen – but the officer was convicted of attempted murder related to the second volley, which was fired while Yatim was lying on his back.
Forcillo was also later convicted of perjury for claiming to be living with his ex-wife while on bail awaiting his appeal, when he had in fact moved in with his new fiancee. He was sentenced to six and a half years behind bars and was granted full parole in 2020.
The inquest will examine the circumstances surrounding Yatim's death and could result in recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.
Inquest presiding officer David Cameron expressed disappointment that the inquest was "being sidetracked" by Forcillo's motion and said he would have a decision on it before the end of the year. New dates for the inquest will be announced after the decision.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.