Justice For Otto Vass

Vigil and Memorial Service for Otto Vass Held Thursday November 6th 2003 at the Corner of College and Lansdowne

Maybe 100 people turned out, and it looked like just as many cops turned out, many of them on bikes. They stood across the street on the north side of College Street, in front of the Car Wash Parking Lot.

A few speeches were before the time I arrived, but OCAP was there and I caught the last few words as Jen was winding down her statements.

I took the following photos during the next 30 minutes of the vigil. As I recall, it was cold, damn cold.

Afterwards, many of us went inside the Harvey's and warmed up over coffee and conversation at the insanity, and I do not use that word lightly, at the insanity of the Verdict.



Call Out for The Vigil - November 5, 2003

Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003 5 PM
7-11 Store, corner of College and Lansdowne

The four police officers who beat Otto Vass to death at the 7-11 store on August 9, 2000 have all been found not guilty of manslaughter.

The verdict came as no surprise to those of us who have followed the history of police violence in this city.

But that doesn't make it any the less of an outrage.

The police lawyers' tactic - putting the character and psychiatric history of Vass on trial rather than the 51 blows inflicted on Vass by the cops - was successful. This is what happens on those rare occasions when police are called before the courts because of their violence: the victim is put on trial.

There is a lot to criticize in the way the trial was conducted. The prosecution was half-hearted and inept. Crucial evidence - particularly the eyewitness testimony of two witnesses who graphically described the police violence at the preliminary hearing - was never heard by the jury. The most damning witness against the cops was deported before the trial began, and because the Crown had not interceded with immigration officials, the judge would not allow the sworn testimony from that earlier hearing to be read out to the jury. And the judge in his summation of the case all but instructed the jury to find the cops innocent.

There will be later opportunities to say more on the conduct of the trial, but now is the time to act. We cannot allow this court to have the last word on Otto Vass's fate.

Tomorrow at 5 PM, at the 7-11 store parking lot where he was killed more than three years ago, the Committee for Justice for Otto Vass has called for a memorial service. Please spread the word.


Another trial was possible

Analysis of the Otto Vass murder trial by Don Weitz

The jury has been sequestered in the case of the four police officers charged with manslaughter in the August 9, 2000 death of Otto Vass. The trial may be over, but the controversy will continue, regardless of the verdict. Here are just some of the issues.

1) The opening argument that was heard too early

The problems began at the very beginning of the trial. It is normal practice in criminal cases for the Crown Attorney - prosecuting the accused - to make an opening statement, and then take whatever time is necessary to present the evidence. Only after that does the defence make an opening statement, and call its own witnesses.

But on September 16, Judge Patrick Lesage allowed the defence to present its opening arguments immediately after the opening from Crown Attorney Desmond McGarry. For 45 minutes, one of the defence attorneys, Earl Levy, went on and on and on almost exclusively about Mr. Vass' psychiatric history. The effect was to shift attention from the events of August 9 to the story of Otto Vass' life. From that day forward, it was not clear who was on trial - the four police officers, or Otto Vass.

2) The witness the jury never heard

The jury heard testimony from five eye-witnesses. But there was a sixth, and his evidence was never presented to them. Amir Hameed was quoted in the Toronto Star August 10, 2000 (the day after Vass was killed), saying:

"They (the police) were beating him worse than an animal - He wasn't fighting back at all."

Hameed said one officer held the man down and punched him in the face while the other hit him on the legs with a baton.

"He was just screaming due to the pain," Hameed said. "He never hit an officer - they never gave him a chance, and he never tried to."

On Friday August 11, Canadian Press wrote the following:

"(The officer) hit him with the baton 40 or 50 times, with all his energy," said Amir Hameed, who said he watched the incident from his apartment across the street.

None of this testimony was heard because Hameed was deported from Canada to Pakistan on an unrelated matter June 10, 2003. The Crown's office knew that Hameed was under threat of deportation, but for more than a year after the preliminary inquiry in June of 2002 (where Hameed testified), they did nothing to prevent or delay that deportation.

It is very likely that had they contacted Immigration authorities, Hameed would have been kept in the country until he testified. Had Immigration refused after being contacted by the Crown, Lesage indicated that he would have considered having Hameed's testimony from the preliminary inquiry, read in as evidence.

But because the Crown did not do "due diligence" to ensure Hameed's presence in the country, Lesage ruled on October 7 - with the jury out of the room - that Hameed's testimony would not be allowed in the trial.

3) The grieving widow who was kept out of the court-room

Vass was painted as a mentally-ill "monster" who "met his destiny" (in the words of one of the police lawyers) when he died after the encounter with the police on August 9. The jury was never given a picture of the human side of Vass to counter the demonization coming from the police lawyers.

They didn't even have the presence in the court-room - until the closing days of the trial - of his grieving widow, Zsuzsanna. This was one of the most outrageous aspects of the trial. In what other circumstances would the wife or husband of a homicide victim be excluded from the trial of those accused in the homicide?

The judge argued that the exclusion was necessary because Zsuzsanna had been called as a witness (by the police lawyers of all people), and all witnesses were excluded from the court room. But Zsuzsanna was not a witness to the crime. She was nowhere near the 7-11 on August 9, 2000. It was the opinion of many that she had only been called by the police lawyers in order to exclude her from the court-room. The constant presence of a grieving widow in the audience was bound to have an influence on the jury, showing that Vass was a human being, with a life and loved ones. But on September 23, Lesage ruled that Zsuzsanna be excluded.

4) The objections that were never raised

It is usually the case that the Crown has more resources at its disposal than the defence. But in this case, with four police on trial, it often seemed to be exactly the reverse. Four defence lawyers would grill each witness. Four defence lawyers were there to raise objections against the Crown.

And with the cacophony coming from the defence side, time and again, when it seemed like an objection would surely arise from the Crown's side, there was nothing but silence. This came to a peak October 20, when Zsuzsanna finally took the stand. For hours she was grilled by the defence lawyers. They opened up the matter of her civil suit against the police (she is suing for damages, in a matter that can't be heard until the criminal trial is complete). They were pressing her, trying to portray her as someone willing to fudge the truth for financial gain. Finally it was not the Crown who objected, but the judge, who told the defence that this was not the place to prosecute the civil case. It was only after the judge intervened, that finally objections were heard from the Crown.

There are other matters that should be of real concern to any interested in the cause of justice. It took eleven weeks for the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to lay charges in the first place. If any other four people (i.e. not police officers) were seen kicking and hitting a man who subsequently died, would it have taken eleven weeks to lay charges? And once charges were laid, there was no preliminary inquiry for almost two years, and the trial itself began more than three years after the event. Memories fade with time, witnesses can (and in this case, did) fall from sight - there is a reason that the old expression says "Justice delayed is Justice denied".

Justice for Otto Vass.


Additional Links