An Ontario Superior Court justice sentenced London police officer Nicholas Doering to 12 months in jail for his role in the death of Oneida mother Debra Chrisjohn.
Doering was charged with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life for the 39-year-old mother of eleven from Oneida of the Thames.
He was convicted by Justice Renee Pomerance Nov. 1, 2019.
During Doering’s sentencing hearing, Pomerance said there was very little case law to go by in Canada in terms of sentencing. No police officer has been found “criminally liable” for the death of a person in custody.
“There is a dearth of authority directly on point. It is difficult to find another case in which a police officer was found criminally liable for a death in custody – save for a very recent decision from Nova Scotia,” Pomerance said during the online hearing Monday.
“Despite the scarcity of case law, the law offers guidance in the form of basic sentencing principles, relevant statutory provisions and more general case law.”
Read More: R. v. Doering
Chrisjohn was arrested by Doering in 2016 after she was found obstructing traffic.
According to court records, Chrisjohn was high on methamphetamines.
Doering found that the OPP had issued a warrant for her arrest and organized a transfer to their jurisdiction.
But between the time she was arrested and handed over, her health deteriorated.
She eventually slumped over in the back seat in Doering’s cruiser.
Pomerance said when Doering noticed that he could no longer see her, he pulled over to ensure that she was still in her handcuffs – not on whether she was ok.
Chrisjohn died of cardiac arrest after a drug overdose after being transfered to hospital.
According to Pomerance, “he (Doering) turned a blind eye to risks that would have been apparent to a reasonably prudent police officer… by that point in the chronology Constable Doering should have known there was cause for concern.
“The inference is if he did not know he did not care enough to know… failure to see is blame worthy when it follows a decision not to look.”
Pomerance noted that Doering told the OPP that Chrisjohn had been seen by paramedics prior to the handover.
“Those statements were false,” Pomerance said. “She had not been examined by any medical professionals.”
The Crown was asking for a two-year sentence. Doering was seeking a non-custodial sentence in the range of six to nine months.
“Having balanced the relevant factors I am satisfied that the correct sentence falls somewhere in between the positions advanced by council,” Pomerance said.
In the end, Pomerance ruled that the sentence in this case could not be served in the community despite Doering’s good reputation and probability that he would not commit another crime.
“This case calls for a sentence of real jail. Nothing short of that can reflect the gravity of the offences in this case,” she said. “The sentence imposed by the courts must denounce in the strongest terms, the conduct of the offender and the resulting harm.
“It must reinforce the societal values that were breached: the sanctity of human life, the right of all persons to a minimum standard of care and the duty of police to treat all persons in their custody with respect and humanity.”
Chrisjohn’s family released a short statement through the Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS) in Toronto.
“We have been waiting four years for this decision,” said Chrisjohn’s sister Cindy in the statement. “Debra was a beautiful person with an amazing sense of humor. She was full of love.
“The judge was very clear that he must go to jail for lying to other police about her medical situation and for not treating her like she was a human being. We support that.”
The London Police union immediately released a statement in support of Doering’s appeal of the ruling.
According to a release from the London police service, Doering has been suspended with pay.
“Once the criminal process has concluded, the Police Services Act misconduct investigation will follow,” said Chief Steve Williams in the statement.
Pomerance noted that Chrisjohn was a “loving mother, sister and friend.”
“She was battling the disease of addiction at the time of her death, however that does not define who she was, or how she will be remembers.
“The essence of culpability lies in Constable Doerings devaluation of Ms. Chrisjohn’s life.”
Pomerance noted in her sentencing the fear Indigenous women have talked about in dealing with police and in not “trusting police to protect them.”
According to Caitlyn Kasper, a lawyer with ALS who guided the family through the trial, the sentence handed down to Doering is sending a message.
“The Indigenous community has experienced violence and fear of police for generations, so the statement made by the court that “Truth is the precursor to reconciliation and the courts have a responsibility to speak the truth” resonates with the Chrisjohn family and speaks to their belief that Debra’s death has brought important and precedent-setting change already, and will continue to do so,” she said in an email to APTN.