VANCOUVER – An officer who was among the four Mounties at the Vancouver airport the night Robert Dziekanski died has been found not guilty of lying at a public inquiry into the Polish immigrant’s death.
Const. Bill Bentley bent over and cried into a tissue after the verdict.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark McEwan, who heard the case without a jury, said for a conviction, the Crown had to prove that Bentley knowingly made a false statement, but prosecutors failed to do that.
Bentley was the first to be tried for perjury for his testimony during the 2009 inquiry seeking to find answers about what happened the night the officers responded to a call about a distraught man throwing furniture in an arrivals area.
Dziekanski died on the airport floor in October 2007 after what Bentley said in his notes was a confrontation in which Dziekanski came at the officers screaming and brandishing a stapler before he had to be zapped with a Taser and wrestled to the ground.
But a video, taken by a traveller, contradicted some of Bentley’s notes and statements.
The Crown argued at trial that Bentley and the other officers colluded on their stories to homicide investigators and then lied at the inquiry to cover up the deception.
During Bentley’s trial, the Crown called several witnesses from the airport and prosecutors relied on a comparison of the police officers’ notes and statements. Prosecutors tried to prove the collusion by relying on similarities in the four officers’ notes and statements.
But there were early indications McEwan had doubts about the Crown’s arguments.
McEwan heard no evidence the officers met to concoct a story, and the Crown did not specify when or where the officers allegedly co-ordinated their stories.
During final submissions, McEwan interrupted the Crown several times, raising doubts about the Crown’s theory, and noting civilian witnesses made the same sort of mistakes as the Mounties.
“They don’t have the exact same stories — I’ve compared them,” said McEwan. “In context, they sound like four stories told by four people who saw the same thing. There are some differences.”
The fatal confrontation fuelled a national debate about the safety of Tasers, prompting the Braidwood Inquiry that forced Bentley and the other three officers to account for why they used so much force so quickly on a man who, on an amateur video of the incident, appeared calm when police arrived.
Commissioner Thomas Braidwood’s final report concluded the officers used too much force and had no justification for using the Taser.
The report prompted the province to appoint a special prosecutor to review the case. In May 2011, the prosecutor approved perjury charges against Bentley, Const. Kwesi Millington, Const. Gerry Rundell and former corporal Benjamin Robinson.
The other three officers are expected to face perjury trials later this year.
Bentley had been working as an RCMP officer for just over a year when Dziekanski died.
In the video, Bentley can be seen hopping over a railing and walking through a sliding security door as he and the other officers approached Dziekanski, who stood with his hands by his sides.
Within seconds, the officers surrounded Dziekanski and one of them fired his Taser multiple times, causing Dziekanski to scream and writhe on the floor.
The video was played countless times at the inquiry, with Bentley and the other officers narrating the clip with their versions of what happened.
Bentley testified that, based on the 911 call and Dziekanski’s appearance, he approached Dziekanski prepared for a possible fight.
He said at first, Dziekanski was calm, but then he became “unco-operative” when he threw his hands up and walked away.
Bentley testified Dziekanski picked up a stapler, turned toward the officers and swung it in their direction, with the stapler coming within a foot of him.
The video does not show Dziekanski swinging the stapler, but his back is to the camera — a limitation the officers’ lawyers focused on during the inquiry.
Bentley was also confronted at the inquiry with his own notes from that night and his subsequent statement to homicide investigators.
He included the following account in his notes: “Subject grabbed stapler and came at members screaming.”
At the inquiry, Bentley conceded the note was wrong, but said he was confused about a fast-moving situation.
The defence did not call any evidence and denied Bentley colluded with the other officers. Lawyer Peter Wilson argued his client’s initial errors were honest mistakes and a product of a fast-paced incident and involvement in an in-custody death.
Bentley was the officer who called for an ambulance and alerted dispatchers about his worsening condition, the defence said.
“Here’s the youngest officer there with the least involvement — what on Earth did he have to cover up?” asked Wilson.
The trials for the remaining three officers are scheduled to be heard by juries starting in November of this year.