Closing arguments in trial of jail guard charged in Manitoba inmate’s death
‘I can’t breathe’ were the last words an Indigenous inmate ever spoke, after pleading for his life during a struggle with the jail’s tactical team, according to Crown prosecutors.
These details were revealed as Crown prosecutors and defence lawyers presented their closing arguments in the trial of a Manitoba jail guard charged in the death.
Robert Jeffrey Morden, a corrections officer in Manitoba, has been charged with criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessities of life. He has pleaded not guilty.
The charges come in connection with the death of 45-year-old William Ahmo, an Indigenous inmate at the Headingley Correctional Centre who died days after a stand-off with the jail’s guards.
In his closing arguments, Crown prosecutor Jason Nicol said this is not a complicated case.
“No one is suggesting that the accused intended for this to happen, but these are criminal negligence offences and so his intent and motive are not relevant factors in this trial,” Nicol told the court.
The court heard Ahmo had been involved in an hours-long stand-off at the jail on Feb. 7, 2021.
Nicol said Ahmo was very aggressive and belligerent, but did not hurt anyone inside the range. He said the Crown does not take issue with the fact that the Corrections Emergency Response Unit (CERU) - a tactical team led by the accused - was called in to handle the situation.
Video evidence played in court shows the tactical team armed with batons bring Ahmo to the ground, shackle his arms and legs, and drag him from the jail range.
Defence lawyer Richard Wolson told the judge that Ahmo's conduct was agitated and dangerous – pointing to testimony the court heard earlier in the trial from the jail's crisis negotiator.
"He told you that the following comments were made… Mr. Ahmo said that he would die and go to heaven," Wolson said. "That he would kill anybody that comes through the door. That he believed that he was in a war and that he wasn't afraid to die."
Wolson also said Ahmo had shown violence, in one instance throwing a sharpened handle of a mop at the head of a jail guard.
During the struggle with the tactical team, the court heard Morden ordered Ahmo to be put into a restraint chair two separate times - which Nicol argued should never have been used in the first place.
He told the court a 2019 Use of Force policy does not justify the use of the restraint chair, and said by the time Ahmo was brought into the range, he was no longer an immediate threat.
“Morden alone is responsible for CERU’s use of the restraint chair,” Nicol said. “The restraint chair was unnecessary, unauthorized and dangerous in this particular situation.”
However, Morden's defence disputed this, saying the jail was following an earlier version of the policy which allows for the use of a restraint chair to maintain control of a high-risk offender within a facility.
"It was the safest way to transport Mr. Ahmo who was clearly at the time they called for the chair, a combative, resistive inmate," Wolson said.
Court heard Ahmo was removed from the restraint chair and placed on the ground. Nicol said during the entire encounter, Ahmo told the guards he couldn’t breathe 27 times.
“Mr. Ahmo is literally pleading for his life. He’s telling the accused precisely what the issue is, but the accused does not seem to care. He tells him, yells or screams at him to be quiet," Nicol said.
“Those actions by Mr. Morden in my respectful submission were callous, utterly inadequate, and doomed William Ahmo.”
Nicol told the court the last words Ahmo said in his entire life were, “I can’t breathe.”
But Wolson argued there was another reason Ahmo said those words – he had been pepper sprayed by jail guards during the stand-off.
"(Morden) would have every reason to think that Mr. Ahmo's comment that 'I can't breathe' was as a result of the pepper spray," he said, adding that 10 seconds after Ahmo said he couldn't breathe, Morden called for a nurse.
"It might have been a different scenario if out of the blue somebody complained they were having trouble breathing, it might have been a whole different scenario. But there was a reason for that, at least in the mind of Jeff Morden."
Nicol argued the situation was clear that urgent medical intervention was required – something he said Morden failed to provide.
Nicol argued the offence of criminal negligence causing death occurred when Morden ordered Ahmo to be put back in the restraint chair for the second time – after Ahmo was unresponsive and limp.
“In my respectful submission, after all those events, after all that evidence, placing Mr. Ahmo into the restraint chair in that condition was not only completely useless from a practical point of view, it showed a wanton and reckless disregard for his life,” Nicol said.
The judge has reserved his decision in the trial.
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