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Umar Zameer Verdict: Not a technicality but the hallmark of a properly functioning jury system

Home » BUSINESS LAW » Umar Zameer Verdict: Not a technicality but the hallmark of a properly functioning jury system

In July 2021, Detective Constable Jeffrey Northrip died after being struck by Umar Zameer’s vehicle in a public parking lot. Northrup and his partner, both in plainclothes, rushed the vehicle while investigating a stabbing that had taken place nearby.

The day after Northrup’s death, then-chief of Toronto Police, James Ramer, called the incident a “deliberate” killing. Premier Doug Ford similarly criticized the judge’s decision to release Zameer on bail. Zameer was painted by politicians and media as a “cop killer” and led to outcries for bail reform.

Nearly three years later, however, on April 21, 2024, following a 5-week trial in the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto, the jury found Zameer not guilty on all counts. The evidence at trial shed new light on the narrative pushed by Toronto police and politicians after Zameer’s arrest in 2021.

At trial, the prosecutors’ theory alleged that Zameer knew Northrup was a police officer and that he drove directly at Northrup. Zameer, on the other hand, has always maintained he did not know the people approaching his vehicle were officers. He had feared for his pregnant wife and young son when he saw these people rush his vehicle. In an attempt to escape a confrontation, Zameer reversed his vehicle, ultimately striking Northrup, and then fleeing the scene. As Zameer’s defence counsel noted, “this was an unfortunate, terrible situation that happened. And as a result, an unfortunate accident and traffic death ensued, but it was not intentional. It was not a criminal act. It was an accident.”

Following the verdict, the trial judge apologized to Zameer for everything he had been through over the last three years noting he was “now free” to go.

The jury’s verdict, acquitting Zameer, is the hallmark of a properly functioning jury system in Canada. Read below for a primer on jury trials in Canada.

Jury Trials in Canada Explained

The right to be tried by a judge and jury is central to Canada’s criminal justice system. This right, where an accused is charged with an offence punishable by a maximum of five years or more of imprisonment, is constitutionally protected under s. 11(f) of the Canadian Charter of rights and Freedoms. For some offences, such as murder, a trial by judge and jury is mandatory unless both the accused and Attorney General consent to being tried by judge alone.

The main goal of the jury system is to ensure that the guilt or innocence of an accused person in relation to serious charges is determined by an impartial jury of one’s peers. The purpose of a jury is to render a verdict by either acquitting or convicting the accused. The jurors act as the “judges of the facts” while the judge remains the “judge of the law”.

A jury trial begins with jury selection which is aimed at ensuring a random array of an accused’s peers are selected. Jury members in Canada must be selected at random from the local community where the trial is being held. Jury selection occurs in two-parts. The first involves selecting potential jurors from a list of eligible candidates prior to trial. Jury lists are compiled in accordance with the specific process of each province. Generally, a jury list includes names of eligible persons residing in a particular judicial district from voters’ or electors’ list. While each province has its own legislation determining who is eligible for jury duty, generally a person must be at least 18 years of age and a Canadian Citizen to sit on a jury.

The second part involves the in-court selection of jury members; this process is governed by the Criminal Code. The potential jury members, who received notice by mail, attend court on the first day of the trial. Each potential member has a jury card setting out their name and address. The clerk of the court places each jury card in a box, shakes the box and begins pulling out cards at random. When a jury card is pulled, a jury member may be excused for a number of reasons. For example, a jury member may be excused where the parties have concerns that the juror will not be impartial or has a personal interest in the matter to be tried. Similarly, if acting as a juror would present undue personal hardship the juror may be excused. This process continues until there are 12 to 14 jurors to constitute a full jury. The jurors are then sworn in by the clerk of the court.

Once a jury is selected, both the Crown prosecutor and defence counsel address the jury in opening submissions. The purpose of an opening address is to set out each parties’ theory of the case and the evidence they anticipate the jury will hear. The Crown will then lead its case by calling witnesses. The defence is not required to call evidence but may choose to do so. At the end of the evidence, both parties give closing submissions to the jury. Following closing submissions, the judge will give a “charge to the jury” or “jury instructions” summarizing their role as jurors, the applicable law to the case and often, the parties’ positions and evidence heard at trial. The jury then retires to deliberate. If the jury has any questions for the judge, they write their question on a piece of paper which is delivered to the judge. The judge meets with the Crown and defence counsel, in the absence of the jury, to discuss the best way to answer the jury’s question in accordance with the law and principles of fairness. The jury is then brought back into court to hear the answer to their question.

In Canada, the jury’s verdict must be unanimous. In other words, they must all conclude that guilt was or was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury does not, however, need to unanimously agree on the path to that conclusion. For example, jurors may acquit an accused where they disagree on how reasonable doubt was raised but are all in agreement there is reasonable doubt as to the accused’s guilt. During their deliberations, juries are sequestered to ensure their deliberations and ultimate verdict are free from outside influence. A jury does not provide reasons for its verdict; their deliberations, even after a verdict is reached, remain private.

In some cases, a jury may be unable to reach a unanimous verdict. This is known as a “hung jury”. Where a jury is “hung”, the judge may decide to declare a mistrial and order a new trial take place.

Police Officers’ testimony and potential collusion

Throughout the trial, and following the jury’s verdict, there has been much discussion surrounding the three officers’ testimony, which presented a unified front on key details which were inconsistent with the physical evidence presented at trial including the evidence of two accident reconstruction experts. The trial judge, Justice Molloy, in her charge to the jury, echoed the defence’s comments that the officers’ testimony did not match the physical evidence and warned the jury to watch out for potential collusion amongst the officers.

Check out Bytensky Shikhman Barristers’ Sonya Shikhman’s interview with City News about the importance of the Zameer verdict:

 

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