Media egg on the mob after highway fatality

Presumption of innocence is taking a drubbing in Cape Breton this month as social media warriors, egged on by the Chronicle Herald, campaign against the driver of a car that struck and killed 17-year-old Joneil Hanna of North Sydney following a Leitches Creek prom party both young men attended.

Relatives and friends of the dead lad are upset police have not charged the driver. They demand to know why cops did not seek a breathalyzer sample at the scene, a step they say was necessary to insure “justice for Joneil”—whatever that means.

Justice for the driver apparently doesn’t factor into the crusade.

Police say they lacked reasonable and probable grounds to believe the driver was impaired, something they must have to demand a sample. If they carried out a breathalyzer without such grounds, results would be inadmissible in court.*

Despite this, the Chronicle Herald has interviewed and re-interviewed a small handful of witnesses who insist the driver was impaired—or at least had been drinking (which is not the same thing). Most prominently featured in a string of Herald stories is a 19-year-old friend of Joneil’s who was walking home with him when he was killed. This witness lied to police at the scene, and only told them what he now says is the truth the following day, by which time the opportunity to administer a breath test was lost.

Here’s a sample of Herald headlines over the last two weeks.

Mom wants answers in son’s death on C.B. highway
Young man who saw best friend killed by car says justice system ‘doing zero’
Driver who struck North Sydney teen smelled of alcohol: witness
Grieving mom says police challenged her to find evidence
Lawyer: Many questions in C.B. youth’s post-graduation party death

CTV has been close behind the Herald in pursuing the issue. The Cape Breton Post and the CBC have been more restrained.

Last weekend’s Herald focuses on inflammatory comments by lawyer Lyndsay Jardine of Halifax. From 400 km away, Jardine has concluded that, “It doesn’t appear that the police have done much of an investigation at all,”  and, “at a minimum the police should have issued a breathalyzer to the driver.”

As a lawyer, Jardine presumably knows police cannot demand breathalyzer tests willy-nilly. According to the Herald,  police had spoken to the driver as he was leaving the party and deemed him fit to drive. They even sent another boy home with him. Demanding a breath sample moments later would have been hard to justify, and unlikely to stand up in court.

Police had to make a judgment call. If they were right, the driver was innocent all along. If they were wrong, we can never know what a test might have shown. Either way, the driver is innocent in law, and most likely in fact—notwithstanding the appetite for vengeance on social media and in the pages of the Herald.

In pandering to the mob, the Herald risks creating another Clayton Miller, a 17-year-old New Waterford boy found dead in 1990, two days after police broke up a party in the woods. In his grief, Miller’s father continues to fantasize that police murdered his son, despite a succession of independent inquiries that found no evidence for this frankly preposterous belief. But every couple of years, the story resurfaces, most recently when a senior lawyer in Jardine’s firm insisted he had “new evidence” to debunk the police version of the events. The so-called evidence turned out to be neither new nor probative.

It’s only human to sympathize with a parent’s grief, but sympathy should not whet our appetite for vengeance or lend credence to every crackpot theory advanced on social media.

* Amendments to the Criminal Code, not in effect on the date of the accident, have eased this requirement.