The Complexity of Dropping the Charges: Bikes, Bryant, and Tragedy

This going to be extremely unpopular with some Toronto cyclists – particularly the ones who follow me on Twitter, but the decision to dismiss the charges in the Michael Bryant case don’t seem completely unreasonable to me.

But before I get death threats let me just say this: I don’t think what happened was OK.  No one ever deserves to die, and no one is above the law.

I’m not even sure how I feel about Bryant escaping without punishment.  But allegations of a “two-tiered” legal system, accusations of murder, and a call for cyclists to unite in protest to this ruling are unfair, to say the least.

BlogTo had a particularly thoughtful post about the topic.  But like my cycling pals on Twitter, author Derek Flack wrote about this as a cyclist’s issue.

This is not a cycling issue.

This is not the same as when driver’s don’t look and run cyclists off the road, or open their doors into traffic.  It is not the same as cars passing too closely and brushing bikers.  It is not the same as honking, harassing, and threatening cyclists.  The altercation between Bryant, and Shepherd – who happened to be on a bike – was about misdirected anger, poor judgment and violence.

By making this a issue for cyclists to unite behind, Darcy Allan Sheppard becomes a straw-man poster boy for the cause of cyclist rights.  But the altercation could easily have happened in a bar somewhere.  If Sheppard picked a fight (like the evidence suggests), and Bryant over-reacted (out of fear, anger, malice, I can’t say) and used an available weapon to fight, it would similar.  The road was merely the setting for the events.

I can’t know what really happened that day, so I have no choice but to interpret the information I have available to me. Something tragic happened and it only took 30 seconds.

Now I’m no legal expert, and I fully support a person’s right to challenge decisions that appear unfair, but I’ve read the decision and the only thing that is clear to me is that nothing is clear.

The media seems to have only picked up on the part of the decision about Shepherd’s past – as if that is the only thing the crown considered.  If you’d only read the first page of the decision, you might think the Crown acted unfairly.  But if you read on, the decisions says this:

Because there is an allegation in this case that Mr. Sheppard acted as the aggressor in the confrontation with Mr. Bryant, the law requires us to consider the prior conduct of the deceased. . . . No one “deserves” to have a criminal offense committed against him, regardless of his background or prior conduct.  The deceased’s propensity for aggressiveness or violence, however, is relevant to considering whether the accused was attacked by the deceased and to show the probability that the deceased was the aggressor in the altercation.

The Crown also looked at witness testimony (some of which was proven to be inaccurate when compared with forensic evidence), and video tapes.

Some people have suggested that the charges against Bryant were dismissed because of his former position as attorney-general.  I’m not naive enough to think that high-profile people don’t ever get special treatment.  But I’m also not naive enough to think that those same people weren’t convinced of that special treatment the second they discovered Bryant’s position.

Several people have told me that they were upset that Bryant didn’t at least go to trial – as some sort of proof that justice was carried out – but I’m not convinced.  After all, it wouldn’t be fair to Mr. Bryant to have a trial when it wasn’t warranted just to prove impartiality.  The proof of impartiality is applying the law to a high-profile defendant in the same way you would to anyone else.

Just by hearing so many perspectives on the case, I understand why the Crown felt they couldn’t make the case.

The law, according to the decision, states the following:

Dangerous driving requires proof of a marked departure from the standard of a reasonably prudent driver having regard to all the circumstances, including the accused’s reasonable perception of the facts.  Mere civil negligence, carelessness or errors in judgment that fall short of the above standard are insufficient to establish criminal liability.

The law with respect to the offence of dangerous driving recognizes that momentary acts of panic in reaction to an unexpected situation will often fall short of proving an offence of dangerous driving.

This doesn’t sound like unfair treatment, or an unreasonable thought process.  It doesn’t mean that Bryant’s defense is true, it means that the lawyers looked at the evidence they had available to them, and had to make a decision to the best of their ability.

I’m not saying I think Bryant is blameless.  But if I take his side of the story to be true, it doesn’t sound completely unreasonable that he was scared and seriously fucked up.

I think what really rubs people wrong in this case is that it is seemingly unresolved.  But not going to trial doesn’t mean that justice wasn’t carried out.

Sometimes the law disappoints.  That makes me sad.  But a law that gets applied differently to different people is a far more upsetting thought.

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5 thoughts on “The Complexity of Dropping the Charges: Bikes, Bryant, and Tragedy

  1. Thank you for offering a complex and nuanced examination of this case. I’m getting really sick and tired of people framing this as an issue of cyclists rights or cyclists vs. drivers when it is really a matter of a freak accident and criminal justice. Dwelling on this case will only do cyclists a disservice by distracting from the actual debate about bike safety in Toronto, a debate which we must have. Like you said, this type of altercation was one of misdirected aggression and could have happened anywhere and is not unique to the road and should not be treated as such. It wasn’t an easy decision to drop the charges, but I think it was the right one.

  2. The surveillance camera shows Darcy cuting infront of Bryants car and Darcy faceing forward waiting for the red light. Both of them were standing their ground Darcy happened to be in Bryants turff the Mink Mile, unlike Darcy Bryant was in his car giving him more edge. The car starts to jerk toward Darcy 3 times on the 3rd time
    Bryant jams the car against Darcy from a 20 foot plus distance. Are we to assume Darcy was the agressive one and Bryant was a scared mouse? Bryants long time hobby is boxing, how can a powerful man like Bryant be so scared of a cyclist? Was he still scared of him when Darcy laid on the ground bleeding to death?

  3. I made a comment similar to yours on my blog shortly after the incident occurred (“We are not at war”, 2 Sep 09) that this is not an issue of cyclists vs. drivers, and in my opinion framing it as such perpetuates stereotypes and leads to more of this sort of politicizing and violence. Sad but true. This was a fight between two men who both could have behaved more appropriately. Although I respect the decision to drop the charges given the details available, I feel like the investigation was very one-sided. “Because there is an allegation in this case that Mr. Sheppard acted as the aggressor in the confrontation with Mr. Bryant, the law requires us to consider the prior conduct of [Sheppard]”. There is equally an allegation that Mr. Bryant was the aggressor, however his prior conduct was not investigated at all, or at least it was not presented in the published Executive Summary. In fact, the summary seems to set out from the very beginning assuming that Sheppard was the aggressor and builds that case, and seems to ignore all other possibilities. I doubt there ever would have been enough evidence to convict and it would be unproductive to take it to trial, but the inconclusiveness of it all still leaves me feeling like justice was not served.

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comments Greg.

      I think this situation leaves pretty much everyone with a bad taste in their mouths. And unlike Victoria above, I think it is truly impossible to come down firmly on one side or the other.

      And while I see your points about not looking into Bryant’s background, the task they would have to achieve in court was to disprove Bryant’s story, not necessarily prove another. So they have to look at things and see if the evidence could support what he said. That doesn’t mean he was right or he wasn’t the aggressor, but the evidence and Bryant’s story certainly created doubt about his culpability. The decision said that, under the law, they have a very high burden of proof in cases like this.

      I don’t like the idea of no punishment, but I also don’t like the idea of punishment because people who got their information from the internet and media have prejudged the situation either.

  4. Lizz,

    Funny that we both wrote about the same thing (albeit at different times) and share the same opinion. I really like your post on the charges being dropped against Bryant. I also like that as a cyclist, you recognize this “event” is not an us vs. them (cyclists vs. the car). I have other friends who are cyclists too and feel this way, but seem to be tentative to publicly say they feel this way for fear of the backlash. What happened was a tragedy, pure and simple. There’s no other way to put it.

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