Ottawa police officer Daniel Montsion found not guilty on all charges in death of Abdirahman Abdi
OTTAWA -- Ottawa Police Const. Daniel Montsion has been found not guilty on charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in the death of Abdirahman Abdi.
In rendering his verdict, Justice Robert Kelly said the Crown had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the force Montsion used during the arrest of Abdi on July 24, 2016 was unjustified.
"The crown has not discharged its onus of proving beyond a reasonable doubt an unlawful act or unreasonable conduct for manslaughter or an unjustified assault to ground liability on the other two charges," Justice Kelly said. "In the end, I am left with a reasonable doubt on each of the three main issues."
Montsion's lawyers say the constable is relieved with the verdict and will begin the process of returning to work with the Ottawa Police Service.
"He feels, as I said earlier, greatly relieved that this ordeal is over and is looking forward to going back into the service," lawyer Michael Edelson said.
Montsion was charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in 2017 following an SIU investigation into the July 24, 2016 arrest on Hilda Street. He had pleaded not guilty.
Montsion was one of two officers who responded to initial reports of a man groping women at a nearby Bridgehead coffee shop that day. Abdi ran from the first responding officer, Const. Dave Weir, toward his apartment building at 55 Hilda St. Weir had attempted to subdue Abdi with his baton and with pepper spray before Montsion arrived.
Weir was never charged in connection with Abdi's death.
Montsion was tried over 72 trial days, though the court case officially began in February of 2019. It faced numerous delays due to questions over evidence and, later, the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected courtrooms in Ontario. The closing arguments were delivered over Zoom in July of 2020. The verdict was also delivered via a Zoom webinar.
The case centred on Montsion's use of force, particularly blows to the head using knuckle-plated gloves. The Crown had argued that Montsion's gloves were used as a weapon and that his strikes directly contributed to Abdi's death. The Defence countered that the gloves were standard issue gear, meant for protection, and that Abdi's underlying medical issues were what ultimately killed him.
Speaking outside the courthouse on Tuesday, lawyer Solomon Friedman, who also represented Montsion, said their case showed Montsion did not rush to judgment on the day of the fatal arrest.
"We took Justice Kelly transmission through transmission to show constable Montsion didn't rush into an altercation unprepared," Friedman said. "He had an enormous amount of information available to him and the steps he took reflected that and from what we heard in terms of Justice Kelly’s judgement that's reflected in his reasons."
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Abdi's official cause of death was a hypoxic brain injury following a heart attack. The court heard that Abdi had underlying issues with his heart, including blocked arteries. He was 37 years old.
The lawyer representing Abdi's family says the family is devastated but not surprised.
"The family did not expect that the criminal justice system would be the way to resolve systemic problems including challenges in dealing with people who have mental health issues," Lawrence Greenspon said outside the Ottawa courthouse. "The family did not expect the criminal justice system would be the means to effecting change."
Local politicians react to verdict
Ottawa City Councillor Jeff Leiper, who represents the area where Abdi lived, called the verdict an "indictment of our city and country" on Twitter.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said in a lengthy statement his thoughts are with Abdi's family.
"The tragic incident involving Abdirahman Abdi, which happened over four years ago, has of course been especially heartbreaking for Mr. Abdi’s family and friends within the local Somali community. For those individuals who have experienced discrimination in our community, either systemic or overt, today may be even more difficult and painful," Watson said. "Today, my primary thoughts go out to Mr. Abdi’s family and friends for their devastating loss. I would like to once again express my sincere condolences and regret for the death of their loved one."
Watson also said he has full confidence in the criminal justice system.
"I also want to take this opportunity to re-iterate my full confidence in our justice system. We are privileged in Canada to have a justice system that strives to render verdicts based on the facts and evidence before the courts – a system that upholds the rule of law."
The mayor said the issues of racism and systemic inequality have come into sharp focus in the past year.
"Indigenous Peoples, Black and other racialized populations in Ottawa have been, and continue to be, disproportionately the victims of violence, racist graffiti, racial slurs, excluded from activities and employment opportunities and discriminated against in the workplace," Watson said. "This can only end with sustained, concrete action. I believe that municipalities have an important role to play in the fight against racism and discrimination."
Chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board Coun. Diane Deans also released a statement on behalf of the board.
"Today's verdict will bring a wide range of emotions. The Ottawa Police Services Board is determined that, through the ongoing healing process, our board and police service will come together with the community to find a collective way forward to address public calls for change in meaningful and tangible ways," the statement said, in part.
Police: 'We are listening, learning and changing'
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the Ottawa Police Service said it respsects the court's decision, and Abdi's death has weighed heavily on "all members of the Ottawa Police Service."
“No one can ever accept the loss of life in a situation like this – especially of a vulnerable citizen experiencing a mental health crisis,” the statement said.
“We recognize the environment in which we deliver service and we have heard the calls for change to the way we police,” the statement added. “We have been seeking out better ways to help people who are in crisis. We are not doing this alone. We are working with community partners and subject-matter experts to advance training, operations and culture.
“We are listening, learning and changing.”
The service is conducting a review of the incident and its policy, which it says it’s working to finalize “as expeditiously as possible.”
Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, who was sworn in last October, has said he is committed to reforms within the Ottawa Police Service.
Appearing before a Parliamentary committee in July, Sloly said "unequivocally" that systemic racism exists in policing, in all Canadian institutions and in Canadian society as whole, and that it puts not only the community, but also police officers in harm's way.
In June, the Ottawa Police Services Board approved a motion calling on the police service to create a more equitable and inclusive service for its members and the community.
Justice for Abdirahman Coalition responds to verdict, marches to Parliament Hill
A group called the Justice for Adbirahman Coalition was formed following Abdi's death, which called on the Ottawa Police Service to address racism within its ranks and to make changes to how officers respond to calls, especially those involving individuals with mental illnesses. Their stated goal is to "bring justice by way of legislative and policy reforms to ensure that what happened to Abdirahman would never happen again to anyone."
Marches in support of justice for Abdi have taken place as recently as this summer.
At a vigil and news conference Tuesday afternoon, outgoing co-chair of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, Farhia Ahmed said the verdict was catastrophic.
"Today was nothing short of catastrophic. Today we have no demands for the system, and the system did not fail us, it was not built for us," she said.
"Today there was no conviction, but conviction remains firmly in our hearts. Without a complete overhaul of the current so-called justice system, a wound as deep as this is impossible to repair.
"Today we heard a verdict that has not only done irreparable harm to a family, to our community, and to the memory of a man undeserving of death at the hands of the state, but harm as well to what little semblance of trust remained between law enforcement and our city’s most vulnerable."
After the vigil, a march to Parliament Hill began. Those who had gathered at Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa began walking toward Parliament Hill, chanting "no justice, no peace" and "Black lives matter."
Verdict part of 'centuries old pattern of injustice': Ontario NDP
The Ontario NDP was swift to react to Montsion's acquittal.
Leader Andrea Horwath, along with the Ontario NDP Black Caucus and NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre Joel Harden released a statement within minutes of the verdict to denounce what they called a pattern of violent and systemic injustice.
"Abdirahman Abdi should still be with us. We stand with Mr. Abdi’s family, and Black communities in Ottawa and across the province during this profoundly painful time," the statement said. "Mr. Abdi was living with mental health challenges and deserved help. Instead, he was met with violent and ultimately deadly force. Shamefully, Mr. Abdi’s killing and the verdict today are not isolated incidents. They are part of a centuries old pattern of deadly and systemic injustice in Ontario and Canada that continues to this day."
The NDP called for an urgent reimagining of policing in the province, including investments in mental health support and diverting police spending from "military-grade hardware" to community services.