TORONTO (AP) — A Toronto police officer has been found guilty of assault in the beating of a young Black man who lost an eye when he was arrested in 2016.
Prosecutors alleged Constable Michael Theriault, who was off duty at the time, and his brother Christian chased Dafonte Miller in the early hours of the morning, cornering the then 19-year-old between two homes in Whitby, Ontario, and beating him so badly with a pipe that his left eye burst.
The Theriaults pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault and obstruction of justice in relation to the Dec. 28, 2016, incident and its aftermath. The judge convicted the officer and acquitted his brother.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca delivered his verdict Friday. Michael Theriault will be sentenced at a later date and faces up to five years in jail.
Miller thanked the community for support.
“Now an officer has been held an accountable to some extent,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in my position who don’t get the same backing that I got.”
Miller’s lawyer, Julian Falconer, said Miller seemed to be as much on trial as the brothers. Falconer said it all started as a case with multiple charges including use of a weapon, drug possession and other charges against Miller. He said his client didn’t deserve to have a steel pipe used against him or to lose his eye.
“How did it happen that a person who suffers catastrophic injuries — his left eyeball on the hood of a car, parts of his eye actually leaking on to the hood of car — at the hands of two people who had no visible injuries whatsoever could up the subject of multiple criminal counts without any members of the Durham service questioning it?” Falconer said.
Falconer called it a cover-up because the Durham police and Toronto police didn’t contact internal affairs. He urged a federal inquiry into police beatings of Black and Indigenous Canadians.
“This is not an isolated incident. This is not about one bad apple. This is happening across North America,” Falconer said. “It is a systemic chronic problem.”
Defense lawyers argued the brothers caught Miller and his friends breaking into a vehicle and acted out of self-defense, alleging Miller was the one wielding a pipe.
In reading his decision, Di Luca said he was mindful of the social context surrounding the case. The case, and others like it, “raise significant issues involving race and policing that should be further examined,” he said.
But the judge said his task was not to conduct a public inquiry on race and policing or to deliver the verdict sought by the public, it was to determine the case based on the evidence.
Miller, now 22, testified last fall and denied stealing from cars that night.
He told the court he was out walking with two friends when the Theriaults started questioning them about why they were in the area. He said the brothers began chasing him when he and his friends walked away.
Miller said he didn’t have a chance to fight back, and only recalled seeing Michael Theriault with the pipe.
The case has spurred protests by members of Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism activists.
“As chief, I can’t deny that this matter will have an increase strain between police and the community, especially the Black community,” Toronto Police Chief Marc Saunders said.
“Dafonte Miller received a life-altering injury. He lost his eye.”
Saunders said he could not comment on whether the officer will keep his job as internal investigations will continue after the appeal process. Theriault has been on paid suspension.