A Canadian police officer has been found not guilty over the death of a mentally ill Black man who was beaten during his arrest, in a case that became a flashpoint in the country’s fight against police brutality.
Daniel Montsion was acquitted on Tuesday of manslaughter over the 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi. The verdict was immediately denounced as an indictment of Canada’s ability to deliver justice to marginalized groups.
The altercation between Abdi, 37, and the police began when officers were called to an Ottawa coffee shop over reports of a disturbance.
As the Canadian-Somali man fled to his apartment building, officers struck him with a baton and used pepper spray to subdue and arrest him.
Abdi was then left handcuffed and lying face-down in a pool of blood for nearly 10 minutes before paramedics arrived and began administering CPR. He later died in hospital.
Following an investigation by Ontario’s police watchdog, Montsion, 40, was charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon.
But on Tuesday, Justice Robert Kelly said he had reasonable doubt about the use of force by officers – and whether the injuries sustained by Abdi contributed to his death.
“In the end, my assessment of the evidence as a whole, under the governing principles of law, leaves me in a state of reasonable doubt,” he said.
The trial, which lasted more than 70 days and faced numerous delays because of the Covid-19 pandemic, focused on Montsion’s use of force.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Abdi was not taking his prescribed medication and that his “assaultive” behaviour justified his arrest, but they argued he was not dangerous or violent on the day of his death.
The Crown instead focused on Montsion’s knuckle-plated gloves, which they said were used as weapons. Justice Kelly acknowledged Montsion’s blows probably caused damage to Abdi’s face but remained unconvinced that they were ultimately fatal.
The defence countered that it was Abdi’s underlying medical condition that killed him.
In addition to injuries to his face, Abdi also suffered a heart attack during the arrest. He died the following day in hospital of brain hypoxia, according to expert testimony in court.
The long-awaited verdict was delivered over a Zoom conference which quickly reached capacity – a testament to the intense scrutiny around the case.
News of Montsion’s acquittal was met with anger and resignation.
“The family did not expect that the criminal justice system would be the way to resolve systemic problems including challenges in dealing with people who have mental health issues,” lawyer Lawrence Greenspon told reporters. “The family did not expect the criminal justice system would be the means to effecting change.”
Ottawa city councillor Jeff Leiper tweeted: “Justice requires that we end state and societal sanction of violence perpetuated against the poor, the sick, and the racialized. Today’s judgment is an indictment of our city and country.”