An Ottawa constable who repeatedly struck a mentally ill man during an arrest four years ago was cleared on manslaughter and assault charges Tuesday after a judge found he could not conclusively say the blows significantly contributed to the man’s fatal heart attack.
Ontario Court Justice Robert Kelly said he was also not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Const. Daniel Montsion used excessive force during the July 24, 2016, confrontation that led to Abdirahman Abdi’s death, or that the officer acted with a wanton disregard for Abdi’s life or safety, which would be required to find him guilty through criminal negligence.
The judge acknowledged it was a “close call” and that Montsion “likely” caused the fractures to Abdi’s nose, but said the evidence did not meet the standard for a criminal conviction.
Even if Montsion’s strikes did cause the fractures, the Crown has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that those injuries were a significant contributor to Abdi’s heart attack, given that the 37-year-old experienced “considerable exertion and stress” before the constable arrived, Kelly said.
Kelly delivered his verdict in an Ottawa courtroom in a hearing that was also livestreamed. He read part of his reasons and released a fuller, written version shortly afterwards.
Montsion had pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in Abdi’s death.
Defence lawyer Michael Edelson said outside the courthouse that his client is relieved at the verdict and “looking forward to getting back to work.”
Meanwhile, the decision has left Abdi’s family devastated, their lawyer said.
“I have assured them this is far from the end of our fight,” Lawrence Greenspon said, noting that a civil case has been launched and will proceed with a different standard of proof than what is required for a criminal conviction.
The criminal justice system was not set up to deal with systemic issues, including the challenges of dealing with people like Abdi who struggle with mental illness, he said.
The death of Abdi, who was Black, sparked multiple protests against systemic racism and abuse of police powers, and later in the afternoon more than 100 people gathered in downtown Ottawa to protest the verdict.
Farhia Ahmed, the chair of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, told the rally the acquittal is “catastrophic.”
“This verdict is taking us down a slippery slope of international embarrassment,” she said. “What good remains in our democracy if police remain above the law?”
Ahmed said the coalition has negotiated and urged authorities for years to make changes to a system rooted in colonial legacies and slavery.
“Without a complete overhaul of the current so-called justice system, a wound as deep as this is impossible to repair.”
The Ottawa Police Services Board acknowledged Tuesday that it faces “significant issues” with public confidence and accountability, noting the case added to an “already strained relationship” between the force and the community.
The board said it has already taken steps to review the culture within the force, which will help address systemic issues.
“We recognize that it is our job to listen and act. Together we must ensure that we all learn from this tragic event and put systems in place to prevent another such tragedy,” it said.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said Tuesday is a “challenging and emotional day” for the city, particularly for those who have experienced discrimination.
Prosecutors argued Montsion’s use of force was unjustified and that there were many other actions he could have taken instead.
They alleged the punches Montsion delivered while wearing reinforced gloves caused facial injuries that precipitated Abdi’s death.
Defence lawyers, meanwhile, said the constable had no choice but to engage with Abdi and that the punches were intended as “distractionary” blows to facilitate his arrest.
They further argued the injuries Abdi suffered during the arrest did not cause or directly contribute to his death, suggesting he may have hit a “point of no return” with regards to his heart condition before Montsion became involved.
Court has heard Abdi had a pre-existing heart condition that was exacerbated by the physical strain and emotional stress he experienced that day.
The trial also heard he had an undisclosed mental illness and was not taking his medication at the time.
During the trial, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, court heard the incident took place shortly after police were called to a coffee shop in response to reports of a man causing a disturbance.
Abdi was kicked out of the coffee shop and was acting violently and groping women when another officer, Const. Dave Weir, arrived, court heard.
Abdi was pepper sprayed and ran away, but Weir caught up with him outside his apartment building, court heard. Montsion arrived shortly afterwards after hearing about the situation from a police dispatcher, who described Abdi as having possible mental health issues.
Kelly said Montsion arrived at the scene to find Abdi engaged in a dynamic confrontation with Weir.
Shortly afterwards, Montsion delivered several punches, of which at least one connected with Abdi’s head and at least two with his upper body, the judge found.
Abdi, who was unarmed, was brought to the ground but struggled hard and “with some success” as the two officers tried to handcuff him, the judge said.
Montsion then administered three blows to Abdi’s thighs, followed by three to his upper body, two of which landed on his head, he said.
It is impossible to say beyond a reasonable doubt whether Abdi’s facial injuries were caused by the blows or by his fall to the ground, Kelly said.
The timing of the first punches, which occurred almost at the same time as the other officer at the scene delivered a kick and baton strike, “allows for an inference that (Montsion) had made a split-second assessment of the situation and chose these blows as a force option to assist his fellow officer in gaining control of the suspect,” Kelly said in his written decision.
“These are inferences I cannot ignore, and they work against the portrayal of Const. Montsion as a hockey enforcer who arrived on scene and immediately started flailing away without thinking.”
The confrontation progressed too fast to allow for de-escalation techniques, the judge said.
While another officer may have responded differently, the law gives police “some latitude in the choices they make in using force,” the judge wrote, adding officers “are not required to measure their force with exactitude.”
Abdi lost vital signs during the confrontation and died in hospital the next day.