Ontario’s top court has upheld the conviction and sentence of Const. Michael Theriault, the off-duty Toronto police officer who assaulted Dafonte Miller in an attack that left the young Black man blind in one eye.
Earlier this year, Const. Michael Theriault was found guilty of assault in connection with a December 2016 attack on Miller, then 19.
Theriault was initially charged with aggravated assault but was found guilty of the lesser included offence of assault as Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca could not rule out the possibility that during a portion of the incident, the off-duty officer was acting in self-defence and attempting to carry out a lawful arrest. He was also charged with obstruction of justice but was acquitted.
Theriault, who was sentenced to nine months in jail, subsequently appealed both the conviction and sentence.
In a decision released on Monday, Ontario’s highest court rejected the appeal on all grounds and confirmed that the sentence imposed by the judge was justified.
“The trial judge correctly concluded that this case called for heightened denunciation and I endorse his approach,” the decision read.
“As our society comes to grips with disproportionate rates of police violence against Black people, it is integral that the need for denunciation of crimes that are emblematic of these broader social patterns develops accordingly.”
The trial judge said while the Crown did not allege that the attack on Miller was racially-motivated, “the racialized context with which the offence took place cannot be ignored,” adding that community concern about race and policing is at an “all-time high.”
Both Theriault and his brother were initially charged in connection with the incident but Christian Theriault was cleared of all charges following the judge-alone trial.
The attack occurred in the area of Thickson Road and William Stephenson Drive in Whitby in the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 2016. Mller’s injuries were so severe following the assault that he was left blind in one eye and now wears a prosthetic.
The appeal court noted that Theriault’s actions “shattered a community’s trust in the very system that is supposed to protect them.”
“Michael’s actions, as a white off-duty police officer who assaulted a retreating, injured Black youth, cannot, and should not, be divorced from this wider context,” the decision read.
Miller called the upholding of the conviction ‘a huge step’ toward justice.
“For me, I just feel like the decision today was obviously a huge step forward because I find the acknowledgement that racism plays (a part) in police interactions, not only in my situation specifically but other people who be going through the same situation as me, it was really important,” Miller said.
However Miller’s lawyer Julian Falconer expressed anger that the system that sought to ignore Miller’s brutal beating has failed to hold others to account.
“Inspectors who magically didn’t connect with SIU and furthered the cover-up, they’ve ‘retired’ out of accountability,” Falconer said. “It’s nonsense.”
The Crown’s appeal of the case was also dismissed by Ontario’s top court on Monday.
The Crown took the position that prosecutors would not seek a new trial unless Theriault’s conviction was overturned.