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Gerald Stanley trial: Fatal shooting of Colten Boushie 'a tragedy but it's not criminal,' defence says

Star Phoenix logo Star Phoenix 2018-02-08 Andrea Hill, Saskatoon StarPhoenix
013018-Sask_Farm_Shooting_20180130 © Cloudesley Rook-Hobbs 013018-Sask_Farm_Shooting_20180130

BATTLEFORD — Jurors’ decision on the guilt or innocence of Gerald Stanley will likely come down to whether his version of events leaves them with a reasonable doubt about what happened on the day Colten Boushie died.

In his closing statement, defence lawyer Scott Spencer said Stanley had opportunities to lie to make his case stronger, but didn’t do so.

Crown prosecutor Bill Burge told the jurors they can’t believe what Stanley said and that his testimony about his handgun going off when it appeared to be disarmed simply can’t be true.

As the Crown and defence gave their closing arguments Thursday in Stanley’s second-degree murder trial at Battleford Court of Queen’s Bench, Spencer attempted to paint a picture of a 56-year-old man reacting as any reasonable person would when faced with multiple trespassers, the attempted theft of a vehicle, a car crash and the fear of his wife or son being in danger.

Spencer asked the jurors to put themselves in the “highly-charged situation” the Saskatchewan farmer faced on Aug. 9, 2016. 

Boushie, a 22-year-old from Red Pheasant First Nation, was fatally shot that afternoon on Stanley’s farm in the RM of Glenside.

Stanley “doesn’t want to be in a confrontation, he just wants them to leave,” Spenser said.

The trial has heard conflicting testimony and accounts, but some facts are not disputed.

On Aug. 9, 2016, five people — Colten Boushie, Cassidy Cross-Whitstone, Belinda Jackson, Eric Meechance and Kiora Wuttunee — got into a grey Ford Escape SUV and drove from Red Pheasant First Nation to a swimming spot by the river. All were consuming alcohol.

After the group left the river, they got a flat tire and then drove onto a farm 15 kilometres northeast of Stanley’s farm, where at least one person attempted to steal a truck by hitting the truck window with a .22-calibre rifle that was in the back of the SUV. The SUV was eventually driven onto Stanley’s farm and Boushie was killed by a single gunshot to the head while he sat in the driver’s seat. A bullet entered below his left ear and exited on the right-hand side.

Forensic investigation determined Boushie was shot with a Tokarev semiautomatic pistol that was found in Stanley’s home.

Follow StarPhoenix reporter Andrea Hill live in the Battlefords courtroom at the Gerald Stanley murder trial

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Stanley did not immediately retrieve a gun when the SUV was driven onto his property, Spencer said. Even after he grabbed a firearm, Stanley’s initial response was to shoot into the air, he said.

“This whole situation is bad and sad. So sad,” Spencer told the jury.

Firing warning shots “makes all the sense in the world. That’s a measured response,” he argued, asking if that was a marked departure from what any reasonable person would do.

When Stanley testified in his own defence, he described trespassers on his property, a chaotic scene involving a collision and an attempted theft of a quad. Stanley said he loaded two bullets into a handgun and fired two warning shots into the air, the last time pulling the trigger “two or three times” to make sure the gun was empty. He said two men from the vehicle started running down the driveway. 

At one point, the vehicle moved quickly and suddenly, crashing into a parked vehicle on the Stanley property. Maybe it was accidental, but imagine how Stanley felt, Spencer said, arguing that Stanley’s main concerns at that moment were whether his wife and son were okay.

“You’re faced with uncertainty, fear, all those factors,” Spencer said. “This is serious stuff.”

Stanley testified that he never pointed the gun at the vehicle or the people in it. He said he brought the gun down and popped the clip out, leaving the gun in his right hand and the magazine in his left. He told court the gun fired when he went up to the SUV and attempted to turn the vehicle off.

“I was reaching in across the steering wheel to turn the keys off and boom, the thing just went off,” Stanley testified.

Firearms expert Greg Williams told the jury last week that “something unusual happened” when Stanley’s handgun fired, but he found no evidence the gun was broken. One possible explanation was that the ammunition was defective, which could have caused a hang fire — a perceptible delay between when the trigger is pulled and when the bullet is fired. Williams stressed that such an event is “exceedingly rare” and that any delay would last less than a second.

Williams, during his testimony, agreed that age and storage are both factors in the degradation of ammunition. Stanley’s ammunition was 1953 military surplus stock from Czechoslovakia that had been stored in a shed.

Those are the few seconds that the Crown would criticize Stanley for, Spencer said. The Crown would say Stanley should have thrown the gun away, but that’s easy to say when removed from the situation, he said. Instead, Stanley said he reached for the ignition, a scuffle ensued, and at the same moment Stanley turned off the SUV, his gun went off.

“Those split seconds that resulted in the tragedy … it just seems hard to believe that all these factors added up to this terrible situation,” Spencer said. “But how can that possibly be unreasonable?”

Cross-Whitstone told the jury that, after leaving the river, he drove the SUV onto three farms. At the first farm, no one left the vehicle, he said. At the second farm, he said he and Meechance attempted to steal a truck and he used his rifle to try to break the window, but the rifle broke.

After that, Cross-Whitstone said he snapped out of a blackout, realized what he was doing was wrong, and decided to go to another farm to ask for help. He said he drove onto Stanley’s farm, but before he could ask for help Meechance jumped out of the SUV and got onto one of Stanley’s quads.

After that happened, Cross-Whitstone said, two Caucasian males ran toward the SUV and Meechance jumped back inside. One of the males then struck the windshield with something; Gerald Stanley’s son, Sheldon, testified that he hit the windshield with a hammer. Cross-Whitstone said he tried to drive away, but had difficulty because of the shattered windshield and flat tire, and he hit a vehicle parked on Stanley’s property. Cross-Whitstone said the SUV appeared to break down at that point, so he and Meechance jumped out and ran away.

In the ensuing moments, Boushie was fatally shot. 

Spencer noted the conflicting testimony from the other occupants of the SUV, including some of them admitting lying to police or under oath during Stanley’s preliminary hearing. He said it would have been better for Stanley to claim self-defence and claim the driver pointed the gun barrel at him, but Stanley didn’t see a rifle in the SUV and his handgun just went off.

“All he knows is what happened. He told you what happened,” Spencer said. “The bottom line is that Gerry was in a nightmare situation but he didn’t have any intention of hurting anyone.

“It’s a tragedy but it’s not criminal.”

Crown prosecutor Bill Burge, in his closing arguments, said the theory behind the murder charge is that Stanley fired two warning shots into the air and then walked to the SUV and deliberately pulled the trigger. But that’s not the only way Stanley can be held accountable, Burge said, telling the jurors they can also consider a verdict of manslaughter based on Stanley’s careless use of a firearm.

Stanley did not know definitely how much ammunition he loaded into the gun, Burge said, noting that a gun is a dangerous instrument and has to be treated with care. The first way to be careful is to know how much ammo is in it, Burge said.

Stanley didn’t know definitely how many times he pulled the trigger or even what the safety mechanisms were on his gun, Burge said. He testified that he believed pulling out the magazine disarmed it.

“Why he would make that assumption is hard to say … it also demonstrates the careless nature in which he handled and used this firearm,” Burge said.

Stanley described an altercation at the SUV with Boushie, during which “he certainly wasn’t mindful of where (the gun) was,” Burge said, calling it “a highly dangerous situation and it exists because of the carelessness of Gerald Stanley.”

Burge spent much of his closing argument walking the jury through the way a semiautomatic pistol works and reminding the jurors of the testimony they heard. He noted that Williams, an expert, testified that hang fires are rare and said he’s never personally experienced one.

Burge also noted that for a hang fire to occur, the trigger would have to be pulled before the cartridge was detonated.

“I’m suggesting that he told you a bit of a story here and he did not, in my submission, tell you the truth,” Burge said.

He called other parts of Stanley’s testimony demonstrably untrue — notably, details about how far back the slide of his gun sat as he approached the SUV. With the slide all the way back, there wasn’t an opportunity for a bullet to be in the gun, Burge said.

“His story is, in my submission, he’s searching for a reason for you to think that this was a hang fire,” Burge argued.

“You can’t believe what Gerald Stanley said.”

If any jurors don’t believe there was an intent to kill, Burge added later, he would urge them to look at how Stanley handled his firearm, calling Stanley “exceedingly reckless.”

By the end of  the day, seven women and five men will likely be asked to begin deliberating. Chief Justice Martel Popescul is scheduled to read instructions to the jury starting at 2:15 p.m. Popescul’s instructions will include the possible verdicts the jury can consider. The three most likely verdicts to consider: guilty of second-degree murder, guilty of manslaughter or acquittal (not guilty).

In order to find Stanley guilty of second-degree murder, the jury will need to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Stanley meant to cause Boushie’s death or meant to cause Boushie bodily harm that was likely to cause death, said University of Saskatchewan law professor Glen Luther.

If a jury is not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Stanley intended to cause Boushie’s death, they could consider whether a manslaughter conviction is appropriate, Luther said. The jury could find Stanley guilty of manslaughter if they are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he caused Boushie’s death while committing an unlawful act (such as pointing a firearm) or because of criminal negligence, he said.

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