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Pathologist testifies in trial of Manitoba jail guard, explains cause of inmate's death

New details have come to light as to what actually caused the death of an Indigenous inmate following an hours-long standoff inside a Manitoba jail more than two years ago.

Robert Jeffrey Morden, a corrections officer at the Headingley Correctional Centre 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 to the death of William Ahmo, a 45-year-old Indigenous man who had been an inmate at the jail when he became involved in a standoff with guards on Feb. 7, 2021.

Court heard Ahmo became enraged and agitated during a standoff with officers after he believed he was the subject of a racist joke. The comment, court heard later, may have come from another inmate.

In previous testimony, court was told Ahmo started throwing desks and computers, ripped a hot water dispenser from the wall, and was taking pieces of broken glass to craft weapons. In conversations with the jail's crisis negotiator, court heard Ahmo said things like that he would die and go to heaven, that he wasn’t going to go peacefully, and that he would kill anybody who came through the door.

Court heard previously that the crisis negotiator believed Ahmo was experiencing a mental health crisis.

The standoff ended after more than three hours when an emergency response unit – a tactical team led by the accused – entered the jail and extracted Ahmo. Video evidence shows the group of officers, armed with batons, holding Ahmo on the ground.

The video shows officers dragging Ahmo from the range, his hands and feet shackled as he is placed into a restraint chair.

Dr. Charles Littman, the pathologist who performed the autopsy following Ahmo's death, was called as a witness by the Crown on Thursday.

He testified Ahmo's cause of death was Hypoxic Ischemic brain injury – which means the brain has been injured from a lack of oxygen and blood supply – due to cardiac arrest.

“The cause of this arrest was a combination of factors, there was the physiological stress - he was extremely agitated and aggressive - he was exhausted as a result of this," Littman told the court.

"Pepper spray had been used which would affect his breathing, and there was also a restraint used in the prone position which would cause a degree of mechanical and positional difficulty in breathing, or asphyxia.”

Littman also testified Ahmo had an enlarged heart, which would make him more prone to cardiac arrest.

Throughout the struggle, Ahmo can be heard – at times yelling and at times gasping – that he couldn't breathe – words he said more than 20 times.

Defence lawyer Richard Wolson questioned the doctor about this in cross-examination.

“If you are out of breath, you might complain that you are having trouble breathing," Wolson asked Littman.

"I mean if I run up a stair and I’m way out of breath, I won’t say I’m having trouble breathing. Having trouble breathing would be when there is an obstruction to breathing," the doctor responded.

"If you are breathing heavily or if you are hyperventilating, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are having difficulty breathing, you are just breathing faster and more frequently than normal."

The trial has been adjourned to the end of September, when the defence is expected to present its case to the court. Top Stories

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