The family and friends of Raymond Silverfox gathered in a tearful drum circle on the steps of the Yukon law courts on Friday. The circle prayed and sang before filing into Courtroom No. 5 to hear lawyers argue over the inquest into Silverfox’s death.
Yukon’s chief coroner is appealing a territorial Supreme Court decision from last year that quashed the coroner’s inquest ruling into how he died.
Silverfox died in police custody in 2008 after spending 13 and a half hours in a cell at the Whitehorse RCMP detachment. During that time he was severely ill, vomited 26 times and begged officers for help. A video of the entire ordeal shows
RCMP officers mocking him with words like “sleep in your own shit,” while he lay curled in the fetal position. He died of sepsis and acute pneumonia from inhaling his own vomit.
A coroner’s inquest was held to look into the death. The inquest’s six-person jury found that Silverfox died of natural causes, but a judicial review later overturned that ruling.
Justice Ron Veale said that it wasn’t clear to the jury that they could return a verdict other than natural causes – such as homicide – without assigning blame.
Coroner’s inquests are not set up to determine blame in a death.
Veale also criticized the decision to allow video evidence to be played fast-forward for the jury. He called this unfair and problematic.
Zeb Brown, the lawyer representing the coroner, disputed these conclusions. He said the video evidence was handled well, and that there were good reasons for playing it in fast-forward, namely to save time.
He also maintained that the coroner’s instructions to the jury were properly given, and that the broad categories of death that the coroner allowed – natural causes, homicide, suicide, accident or undetermined – made the jury’s decision as easy as possible.
“This death was truly shocking, we all know that, but we shouldn’t assume that this would be lost on the jury either,” said Brown.
“The jury summation, I say, gave the jury all the information they needed to render an appropriate verdict. They said it was natural causes, but that something needs to change,” he said, adding that the jury’s recommendations are more important than its verdict.
Within the context of a coroner’s inquest, homicide simply means having control over someone’s death, said Justice Mary Saunders.
“Isn’t it possible that leaving a person locked up for hours in a situation where they’re rolling around in their own vomit … isn’t that something that could be seen as having accelerated his death? That seems to be what happened, as I understand it,” she said.
“Homicide, in this case, only means that there was human agency,” Saunders said.
Brown’s final contention was that Justice Veale overturned the coroner’s ruling based on issues that were not raised during the inquest itself.
Suzanne Duncan, the lawyer representing the RCMP in the case, echoed Brown’s concerns that Veale’s decision may change how coroner’s inquests are conducted in the Yukon.
Because an inquest isn’t about assigning blame, a finding of natural causes shouldn’t negate the seriousness of what happened, said Brown.
But Susan Roothman, the lawyer for Silverfox’s family, contended that “just because a coroner’s inquest doesn’t assign blame doesn’t mean that the RCMP aren’t at fault.”
She said the coroner’s final instructions should have included an explanation of negligence and malpractice.
Roothman also argued that the coroner doesn’t have any standing to appeal the ruling in the first place, because the coroner oversaw the inquest. She likened this to having one judge appealing another judge’s ruling.
“She can’t come to this point and appeal where there is a problem with the role as overseer of the inquest,” Roothman said.
The court has reserved judgment, and a final decision on the appeal isn’t expected until later this summer.
Contact Jesse Winter at firstname.lastname@example.org