MONTREAL – A coroner’s inquiry into the police shooting of a Montreal teenager last August is set to begin Monday despite widespread criticism of the process as being one-sided and too narrow in scope.
Fredy Villanueva, 18, was killed in a north-end neighbourhood while officers were trying to arrest his older brother Dany.
A night of rioting and looting followed the slaying in the hardscrabble neighbourhood of Montreal-North.
Coroner Robert Sansfacon, a Quebec court judge, will head the inquiry, which has seen the victim’s family and various groups pull out because the government has refused to foot the bill for lawyers for all of the victims.
They also are unhappy the inquest will not study the broader issues of racial profiling, police accountability and youth poverty.
Two other men, Denis Meas, 18, and Jeffrey Sagor Metellus, 20, were struck by bullets during the same police operation.
“All the young people – those who were injured or those who witnessed it – and the Villanueva family have said since April 8 that they would not participate in the inquiry,” said lawyer Alain Arsenault, who represents one of the teens who was shot.
“If people receive a subpoena, they will attend for the duration of their testimony and leave immediately afterward.”
Arsenault acknowledged the family’s absence won’t help the image of the inquiry, with just the coroner, the police, their union and a phalanx of lawyers in attendance.
“(The government) made certain choices and they have chosen to rescind certain promises and they’ll have to live with the consequences,” Arsenault said.
The inquiry was called after prosecutors said there would be no charges against the officer who shot Villanueva. They concluded the officer acted with justified force under the circumstances.
About 40 witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify, but as of Friday, the last of the community groups that had initially agreed to participate announced they were pulling out.
The coroner’s office says it hasn’t received any formal withdrawal notices and groups will be allowed to intervene at the last minute should they choose to.
Rights activist Fo Niemi says the lack of legal representation for the teens involved has the potential to create a “visual nightmare” – one of unprepared youth who are compelled to testify and are pitted against six police lawyers.
“The system will be further perceived as trying to crush these youth and denying them basic rights,” said Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations.
“It is a matter of perception and there is already a perception the system is not fair and the fundamentals of the principles of justice are not being respected.”
Current and former politicians as well as artists and activists have failed in repeated attempts to discuss with Premier Jean Charest about a wider mandate for the inquiry.
Lawyers for police officers Stephanie Pilotte and Jean-Loup Lapointe argued successfully that their images and photos should remain under a publication ban after Sansfacon said threats had been made against the officers.
In the aftermath of the shooting and the riot that followed, the Villanueva family filed a $990,000 civil suit against the city and the police.
Meas and Metellus have also sued for $810,000.
The inquiry will continue until Wednesday and then resume for five days, beginning next Monday.