A Toronto police officer convicted of beating a young Black man while off-duty has been sentenced to nine months in jail.
Const. Michael Theriault was found guilty of assault for a 2016 attack on Dafonte Miller that caused him to lose an eye. Theriault was sentenced on Thursday.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca said Theriault will also be placed on probation for 12 months and banned from possessing or using restricted weapons for five years.
Di Luca said “nothing short of a jail sentence” would suffice in this case.
He said the sentence takes into account Theriault’s role as a police officer and the “racialized context” in which the assault happened.
“While the Crown does not allege the assault was racially motivated, the racialized context in which the offence took place cannot be ignored,” Di Luca said in sentencing the officer.
“The offence committed in these circumstances undermines societal values of dignity and equality. It undermines the trust that the community — particularly the Black community — places on police officers. It must be denounced in the clearest terms.”
On a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Miller’s lawyer, Julian Falconer, called Di Luca’s reasons for sentencing “nothing short of historic.”
“They are groundbreaking in their clear and penetrating recognition of the social racial context that police encounters represent for victims in these kinds of cases,” he said.
Miller did not speak to the media, but Falconer said his client was grateful to be heard by the justice system.
“Dafonte feels like he had a voice,” Falconer said. But he noted that the nine-month sentence won’t give Miller his left eye back.
“The net result of nine months in prison for Michael Theriault is not going to take away the deep distrust [Miller will] have for police for the rest of his life,” he said.
Officer and brother both charged
Theriault and his brother, Christian, were charged with aggravated assault and obstruction of justice in connection with the December 2016 incident in Whitby, Ont., east of Toronto.
Prosecutors alleged during trial that the brothers beat Miller, who was 19 at the time, with a metal pipe, leaving him with a ruptured eye and other injuries.
The defence presented a different account, saying the Theriault brothers wanted to arrest Miller after allegedly catching him and his friends stealing from the family truck.
They alleged the pair feared for their lives and acted in self-defence after Miller confronted them with a pipe.
In delivering his verdict in June, Di Luca said he couldn’t rule out the possibility that self-defence played a role in the early portion of the incident.
It was during that part of the encounter that Miller sustained the eye injury that warranted the aggravated assault charge, the judge said.
But Di Luca said he didn’t buy the self-defence argument regarding Michael Theriault’s actions shortly afterwards, when the officer grabbed a pipe and hit a retreating Miller in the head.
Theriault was cleared of aggravated assault but convicted of the lesser charge of assault.
He was also found not guilty on the obstruction of justice charge, while his brother was acquitted of all charges.
Theriault is currently out on bail, pending appeal.
Officer’s career is ‘likely over,’ judge says
Di Luca said Thursday that the sentence is also warranted given the facts of the case.
“This is not a case where in the course of self-defence, an accused simply went too far,” Di Luca said. “This is a case where after any reasonable, possible threat had abated, the accused armed himself with a weapon and struck the injured and retreating victim.”
But Di Luca said he also considered the officer’s high chance of rehabilitation and the conditions he will face in jail.
“Mr. Theriault’s career as a police officer is likely over,” he said.
Theriault was previously suspended with pay but will now be suspended without pay because he’s been sentenced to jail time. He also faces a disciplinary hearing by the Toronto Police Service.
The Crown has appealed the verdict, alleging the judge made errors in his analysis on the self-defence argument.
Defence lawyers sought earlier to have the verdict vacated, but Di Luca said the issue would be better left to the court that hears an appeal.
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