It was a powerful judicial message to a community that saw one of its young Black men beaten to within an inch of his life by a white police officer.
The courts are listening.
For striking Dafonte Miller with a metal pipe, off-duty Toronto Const. Michael Theriault has been handed a relatively stiff sentence of nine months in jail.
“An acutely vulnerable young Black man was hit in the face with a metal pole while he was seriously injured, while he posed no threat and was actively seeking help,” said Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca in delivering his 90-minute decision.
“The fact that Mr. Theriault committed this offence despite his training and position as a police officer makes the offence all the more serious.”
It was a surprisingly harsh sentence considering police officers are seldom, if ever, sent to prison. But the judge noted that only “real jail” time would be enough to adequately denounce the gratuitous violence delivered on a vulnerable man whose eyeball had just ruptured from their violent altercation only minutes before.
Miller, who became a father three months ago, welcomed Di Luca’s decision to give his assailant a jail sentence. “Dafonte feels like he had a voice,” his lawyer Julian Falconer told a press conference. “He wants to (now) get on with his life.”
It will never be the same, of course – he will never regain sight in his left eye or forget the humiliation of being the one handcuffed that night by the off-duty cop who had just beaten him. But his ordeal did lead to Di Luca’s groundbreaking indictment of the historic anti-Black racism found in policing.
“The racialized context of the offence cannot be ignored,” the judge said.
“These are offences that shatter the community’s trust in the system. They serve as a constant reminder of the presence of systemic racism. They prevent the healing that is required to move forward because they demonstrate that true equality is not yet within reach.”
As a result, Di Luca said, “I find this type of offence requires a heightened degree of denunciation.” And “nothing short of a jail sentence” would send that message.
Theriault, though, is unlikely to be heading to prison any time soon.
The 28-year-old left the Oshawa courthouse Thursday afternoon after his lawyers successfully sought his bail pending his appeal.
“As the matter is now before that court, it is really not appropriate to comment on today’s decision other than to indicate I anticipate that he will also be filing a Notice of Appeal against the sentence,” said Theriault’s lawyer Michael Lacy.
While free, he will no longer be able to draw on his police salary. According to a Toronto Police press release, he’s now been suspended without pay by Chief of Police James Ramer.
The Toronto Police Professional Standards unit will also resume its investigation into the events of the evening of Dec. 28, 2016, the release said. Theriault faces a disciplinary hearing after his appeals are exhausted.
The judge accepted that Theriault and his civilian brother, Christian, chased Miller after catching him stealing change from their parents’ truck – though Miller still disputes the allegation. The brothers claimed they were assaulted and feared for their lives when they tried to apprehend him.
While he was skeptical, the judge was left with a reasonable doubt that Miller was initially wielding the metal pipe and Theriault was just defending himself when the young man was first struck in the left eye.
But he found him guilty of assault for continuing to hit Miller in the face even after he’d retreated and was desperately seeking help at a neighbour’s door.
In sentencing Theriault to a “substantial but not crushing” jail term, 12-months’ probation and a five-year weapons prohibition order, the judge acknowledged his police career is likely over. He urged him to resume being an otherwise productive member of society after his sentence is served.
“To Mr. Miller and Mr. Miller’s family, I wish you well in your healing process,” Di Luca said. “I hope you find strength, peace and solace to move forward.”
His final kind words were reserved for the man who has destroyed his own life as well as his victim’s: “Mr. Theriault, good luck to you, sir.”
And the disgraced police officer was led away.