Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Government trying to keep evidence from Frank Paul inquiry

Frank Paul's death almost 10 years ago has raised harsh questions about racism in B.C. Police, the justice system, the provincial government are all under a dark cloud.
Now some key players - the government prosecutors who decided not to lay any criminal charges in the case - are trying to avoid scrutiny at the public inquiry belatedly called into Paul's death.
It's a grim story. Three weeks before Christmas in 1998, two Vancouver police officers found Paul semiconscious in alley. They called a patrol wagon to take him to jail. A video shows the native man being dragged from the wagon to a hall outside the cells.
A nurse walks past. Then an officer decides Paul isn't drunk. He's dragged out of the jail by his feet.
The officers drop him in an alley. Hours later, police find him dead.
And then, for the next nine years, stonewalling and cover-up. None of the people or institutions that should have been concerned - the coroner, the police complaints commissioner, the police board, the solicitor general, the premier - did anything.
Until last year, when mounting pressure from First Nations and human rights advocates forced the government to call a public inquiry.
The inquiry evidence hasn't got that much attention, but it has been important. One police officer offered emotional testimony, expressing his remorse at leaving Paul to die.
Another insisted that the man was not drunk, even though he couldn't walk out of the jail.
Larry Campbell, then coroner, now senator, couldn't offer a good reason why he hadn't ordered an inquest.
Then solicitor general Rich Coleman has yet to explain why he rejected the police complaints commissioner's request for a public inquiry. Coleman feared, among other things, that an inquiry would uncover allegations of racism against the Vancouver police. That seems a reason to hold an inquiry, not to avoid one.
The inquiry has been hearing from the witnesses it considers important.
Until now. The provincial government is going to court to try and prevent Crown counsel from testifying about the decision not to lay any charges against the officers involved in Paul's death.
Inquiry commissioner William Davies has ruled that he wants five Crown prosecutors to testify about the procedures they followed in deciding against charges in the case.
Davies noted that the Criminal Justice Branch of the Solicitor General's Ministry was one of the public bodies specifically identified as subject to review in the inquiry's terms of reference.
"The branch is currently under a cloud, for its response to Mr. Paul's death. It is too early to tell whether or not that cloud is warranted," he said.
But the government is going to B.C. Supreme Court to oppose the requirement that Crown prosecutors testify at the inquiry. Its reasons are unconvincing.
The government argues that prosecutors should not have to account for or explain their decisions to lay charges or decide against them under any circumstances.
Having them testify "opens the door for government, special interest groups and others to put pressure on Crown prosecutors to proceed with criminal charges in circumstances where it is not warranted."
There are three problems with the argument. First, it's unclear how having the prosecutors explain their thinking and the process allows special interest groups to pressure them. Especially given how infrequently such inquiries are called.
Second, it suggests that there is no accountability for prosecutor's decisions not to lay charges. Judges' decisions can be appealed; prosecutors, under this model, would be not just independent but omnipotent.
And third, the attempt to block the evidence from being heard suggests the government still does not understand the critical need for answers in this case.
Frank Paul's death was followed by years of actions that prevented the truth from coming out. The government shouldn't be continuing that secrecy.
Footnote: The B.C. Supreme Court is unlikely to hear the province's arguments until May. Meanwhile, the continued efforts to keep prosecutors from providing evidence is angering First Nations organizations, which complain the government is reneging on Attorney General Wally Oppal's promise of a full and open inquiry into Paul's death.


BC Mary said...


Good work, Paul. Thank you.

It's hard to figure a government wanting to prevent the release of information.

But if the Basi-Virk / BCRail postponements are any indication, these are very expensive actions. It's money spent foolishly, as the BC taxpayers can't escape paying the final bills for multiple lawyers doing multiple requests for even the simplest documents.

It would, I think, help immensely if more journalists did what you've done here -- and shine a bright light onto the situation.

It's awful to think of the Paul Family's 10 years of anger and uncertainty.

Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

Reality check: Frank Paul died because he was intoxicated to the point of insensibility, depriving himself of the ability to look after his own safety. His family is looking for a way of externalizing his failures as a person. If the police hadn't picked him up in the first place, he still would have died - just one more homeless person meeting an ignominious end because of his addiction. The police screwed up. They need to make sure this doesn't happen again. However, their failure was one of omission, not complicity.