Monday, May 23, 2011

Reporting on "Manners Trial" Failed the People

The recent coverage of the "Jordan Manners Trial" confirms my long held position that the media's coverage of legal proceedings is wanting. Media coverage in this case was primarily concerned with informing the public about the outcome of the proceeding as distinct from how the outcome was arrived at and the positions of the lawyers as distinct from what the evidence of the witnesses was. The fact that the Crown did not have a case at all was lost in the coverage.

The media coverage provided us with a lot of speculation and conjecture but very little in terms of substance. At the first trial the Crown's key witness recanted the statement which she had provided to police. The jury was unable to come to a verdict and a mistrial was declared. At the second trial the Crown called the same witness and she confirmed her recantation. This time the two young men - both of whom had been in pre-trial custody for four years now were found not guilty by the jury. There was a popular sentiment in the coverage that the star witness recanted on account of fear. However, the trial judge expressly addressed this in the charge to the jury and told them there was in fact no such evidence. It has since been revealed that the statement taken from the star witness by Toronto Police investigators suffered from serious flaws including the fact that it was not under oath and she was promised anonymity.

Reading between the lines from the evidence reported upon by the media, the recanted evidence was the cornerstone of the Crown's case. According to reports the witness informed the police in her statement that she saw one of the two defendants "dragging the deceased like a rag doll and subsequently the other defendant robbed him of some property." She did not claim to have witnessed the killing. No one did. No weapon was found and there was in fact no physical evidence linking the defendants to the killing. If this was the extent of the evidence against the defendants one must wonder why the Crown and the police brought the case to trial - not once but twice. Indeed it is debatable as to whether or not there was in fact reasonable and probable grounds to charge the defendants. Clearly, it would be a stretch to suggest that there existed a reasonable prospect of conviction following the star witnesses admissions of untruthfulness.

Could it be that the fact that the killing took place in a public school made the goal of charging someone and obtaining a conviction a priority for the Toronto District School Board, Toronto Police Service and the Ministry of the Attorney General? The answer to this question can be found in reviewing the chronology of events following the occurrence combined with the swiftness of the decision to charge the defendants in light of what we now know to be the case against them. Chief Blair took the unprecedented step of visiting the crime scene. The defendants were charged within four days or so of the event. According to reports the police promised the key witness that she could remain anonymous and failed to take a sworn statement from her. On June 7th - some two weeks following the incident The Toronto District School Board appointed a lawyer with expertise in actions against public authorities - namely - Julian Folconer to investigate the issue of school safety. By August, 2007 the School Community Safety Advisory Panel released its interim report.


The role of the media in a free and democratic society is as much to observe and ensure that the rule of law is adhered to in legal proceedings as it is to simply report on the outcome of these legal proceedings. In discharging the first branch of this duty the media ought not to make friend or foe with the interests involved in the prosecution. Indeed it is this first prong of the role of the media which ensures accountability. When the media fails in this aspect of their role we the people are denied. The public in Toronto were not well served by the quality of the reporting in this case. In looking back on the coverage it is a testament to the soundness of the jury system and the skill, dedication and competence of the defence counsel that the rule of law prevailed notwithstanding. Now that justice has spoken perhaps we can get some answers on some of the following questions:

1. Why wasn't the statement of the "star witness" under oath ?

2. Why was she promised anonymity and by whom ?

3. Is there any truth to the suggestion that the killer is in
fact known to police and is not one of the defendants ?

Note: This piece is written for the sole purpose of encouraging public discourse on a matter of public importance. Democracy works better when ideas are freely exchanged and state action is subject to scrutiny.

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