Home > News and politics > Alta. men jailed for deaths of ‘Canadian heroes’

Alta. men jailed for deaths of ‘Canadian heroes’

22-Aug-09 12:36 am EST Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve said it here before: I think the cops have a tough job and they, like the rest of us are only human.  I think more often than not, people’s expectations are too high for police in general.  But I have to say there have been some collosal screw-ups in recent years that are unbecoming of a professional police force – and this is particularly true of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) which has managed to:

  • Wrongfully charge and, despite ample exculpatory evidence, aid the conviction of several people of capital murders for which they were later proven innocent,
  • use excessive force in dozens of cases, particularly cases involving tasers; nearly resulting in a ban on taser use (which in my view would have been both wrong and dangerous, since tasers can save lives when properly used), and most recently,
  • be obsessed with convicting two uncooperative but largely innocent young men; Shawn Hennessey and Dennis Cheeseman following the shootings of four mounties by James Rozko.

Now we can all understand the RCMP – indeed, police everywhere in Canada and abroad – being particularly outraged by the Mayerthorpe killings.  The thirst by some for someone to be brought to justice – perhaps even a thirst, by a few officers, for revenge – would naturally be unquenchable; for no emotions, no rage, no anger would bring the downed mounties back.  Confronted with a pair of locals; one who was easily duped by under-cover investigators and coerced into a confession without counsel present, and the other who, given the experience of the former among other influences, both distrusted police and would lie or do whatever he thought necessary to move his life beyond the whole affair: well, confronted with these two, one might see there’d be nobody better to blame for what happened in the wake of the killer taking his own life.

I’m writing about this tonight thanks to my finally catching a repeat of the CBC’’s Fifth Estate documentary entitled “Collateral Damage” wherein Shawn Hennessey and his wife give an in-depth interview that amounts to an epilogue of the whole Mayerthorpe affair.  The story they tell – that Shawn tells in particular – certainly seems very sincere and by no means is a unique account of police behaviour in high-profile cases.  The police complain that Hennessey’s defenders characterize he and his brother as “scape goats”, to which they respond that they came forward and confessed.  Yet the facts of the story make it clear to anyone accepting all but the narrowest definition of “confession” that the testimony was obtained in a context reminiscent of interrogations at Guantanamo Bay.  (Amazing the influence that facility has had on law enforcement methodology in the past few years.)

But I don’t see these guys as scape-goats at all.  They both made mistakes; mistakes which should have consequences.  Lying to police during an investigation – regardless how much distrust of them you have – is simply a dumb idea.  Hennessey said in light of all that’s happened he should have tackled Rozko the night he came to his house demanding his rifle, threatening he and his family with a pistol he’d brought along.  Or perhaps returned with the rifle Rozko demanded and simply shot him with it.  My answer to that: two more really dumb ideas.  Hennessey might well have been forced to surrender his rifle to Rozko, but that didn’t negate the possibility of involving the police afterward.  His wife answers that by saying Rozko had been arrested and released by police before; was known to be violent too.  What would stop him from coming back to take revenge on Hennessey or his family – perhaps while he was away at work – after Rozko was released following their complaining about his threats?  Perhaps nothing; but then again if the police can’t lock the guy up and he’s really that big a threat, there’s always the option of moving away or taking any of a number of other precautions to mitigate the likelihood Rozko would harrass or harm the Hennesseys further.  The main issue was that Rozko was a nutball and clearly being fiends with this guy who’d given over to threatening his family was itself a risky idea.  Moving away was probably the safest option at that point.

Of course, all this is 20/20 hindsight and there might still be other factors that aren’t generally known.  But once the shootings had happened, disclosure to the police should have been the obvious move.  I doubt wither Hennessey would agree with me on this point, but I am also of the view that we, as citizens, have certain duties and obligations which the law can rightfully penalize us for not observing.  One example would be a duty of care to our fellow citizens; which might involve keeping a walkway on our property ice-free lest a slippery surface cause injury.  Similarly, when a police officer investigating a murder requires our testimony, we have a duty to provide what testimony we can.  And that testimony can be done in the presence of a lawyer – which Hennessey surely should have been in touch with the second he hears about the shootings.  The lies that were told; whatever the motive, cost taxpayers by prolonging the investigations – not to mention the suffering of the mounties families.  (It bears mention Hennessey admits culpability for this and allowing Rozko to leave his house that dark night.)

But does all this amount to a conviction for manslaughter and 15 years prison?  Certainly not in light of what kinds of sentences some other manslaughter convictions yield.  But Hennessey’s motives for pleading guilty to manslaughter have to be called into question.  He’s so distrustful of police and “the system” in general, he worries that pleading not-guilty, regardless of the strength of his case, involves too much risk of a life sentence.  Admittedly, I’m no lawyer – but it seems purely incredible that the facts of this case could yield anything approaching 15 years!  And the story of the duped, naieve brother-in-law who got 12 years when he didn’t even have proper legal counsel until far too late….it’s hard to see how the RCMP can come away from this spectacle with any pretence of being an institution that enforces any rational notion of justice.

The Fifth Estate has started the process of righting this latest, obvious wrong.  I expect we’ll here more about this in the weeks ahead. But the bigger question has to be when do the police in this country finally start “getting it”?  When will the endless pursuit of nailing that next, big, high-profile case finally yield to bread-and-butter police work; to serve and protect the people of Canada without this preoccupation with glory and all the injustices that result from it?

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Terry Glavin

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