The charge against Hayden Laffin is weak. Drop it.

On Wednesday, Provincial Court Judge David Ryan committed Hayden Laffin, driver of the vehicle that fatally struck Joneil Hanna after a Leitches Creek grad party last June, to stand trial for attempting to obstruct justice.

“It might be argued that the crown has a weak case,” Ryan noted, “but under the very low bar for committing a defendant to stand trial, a justice is not entitled to dismiss a defendant solely on the basis that the Crown has a weak case.”

Photo: Robert Short/CBC

I took this as a not-so-subtle message to the prosecution. The case is weak. The decent, ethical thing would be for the Crown to withdraw the charge.

Consider the background. At the time the charge was laid, CBRM Police were under tremendous pressure due to public comments by the Hanna family, and an anti-police crusade by the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

The Hannas and their supporters staged repeated demonstrations demanding what they call, “Justice for Joneil.” After yesterday’s hearing, Jenn Hanna, the dead boy’s mother, praised Ryan’s decision, saying, “I just feel that we might get some kind of justice,” implying that justice for Joneil requires punishment for Laffin.

As it does with grieving families, the media has given the Hanna entourage kid glove treatment, even as their demeanor edged into vengefulness. In keeping with this approach, reporters have avoided any consideration of Joneil’s actions on the night in question, or any responsibility he may bear for the accident that killed him.

An estimated 400-500 people attended the grad party, most of them underage and many of them drinking. Joneil’s death touched off extravagant youthful expressions of grief, which the media covered in the maudlin style so in vogue today. Grief porn gave way to a frenzy of rumors and, on Facebook troll sites devoted to Cape Breton events, outlandish speculation. Police began regular checks on the Laffins’ rural home, citing threats they urged the family to take seriously.

In article after article, the Chronicle Herald reported many of the unsubstantiated rumors, speculating that police failed to give Laffin a breathalyzer because they were covering up their earlier decision to let him drive home from the party. Social media piled on with false allegations that Laffin enjoyed family connections to the police.

CBRM police said they did not give Hayden a breathalyzer because he showed no evidence of impairment. Quite the contrary, he appeared sober. It would have been unlawful for them to administer the test to anyone they believed to be sober.

Nevertheless, in story after story, the Herald pursued its theory of police malfeasance, quoting anonymous teenagers—offering no explanation as to why it allowed them to withhold their names. It likewise gave Halifax lawyers with no connection to the case, or knowledge of the facts, a platform to criticize police anonymously. (I  detailed the evidence, and the Herald’s reporting, last summer.)

In August, after weeks of relentless attacks by the Herald, police charged Laffin with attempted obstruction. It is not unreasonable to wonder whether they felt pressure to demonstrate they were not guilty of favoritism.

This case is an awful tragedy. One young man is dead, another’s life is in shambles, despite a lack of evidence he bore responsibility for the accident (and substantial evidence he did not). Courts should not be used to placate the media or assuage a grieving family’s appetite for vengeance.

The Nova Scotia Police Review Board will hold a public inquiry into the case. That will give ample opportunity to review the events before and after the accident, based on evidence, not rumors or anonymous accusations.

In the meantime, the Public Prosecution Service could serve justice and demonstrate compassion by exercising its discretion to drop the charge against this unfortunate young man. Everyone involved has suffered enough. It is not in the public interest to compound the suffering by pursuing this shaky case.

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