An off-duty Toronto cop convicted in the beating of a young Black man in Whitby in 2016 has been sentenced to nine months in jail.
Earlier this year, Const. Michael Theriault was found guilty of assault in connection with a December 2016 attack on Dafonte Miller, then 19.
In his decision released Thursday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca referred to the assault on Miller as an act of "gratuitous violence on a person who was vulnerable."
"Mr. Miller was badly injured, his eyeball was ruptured, and he was bleeding profusely," the judge said.
"It would have been obvious that Mr. Miller was injured and bleeding... it would have been obvious he was in retreat, seeking help."
He noted that the sentence "reflects the seriousness of the offence " and Theriault's "degree of moral responsibility" as a trained officer who is sworn to protect the community.
"These are offences that shatter a community's trust in the system,” Di Luca said. “This type of offence requires a heightened degree of denunciation.”
During the trial last year, Miller testified that he was in the area of Thickson Road and William Stephenson Drive with a friend in the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 2016 when he was chased down and assaulted by Theriault and his brother.
At one point during the violent altercation, Miller said Michael Theriault brutally beat him with a metal pipe, resulting in what the judge described as a “horrific eye injury.”
Miller was left blind in one eye following the incident and now wears a prosthetic.
The brothers told the court that the altercation took place after they attempted to arrest Miller for trying to break in to a car parked in the driveway of their parents’ home.
They claimed the assault on Miller was in self-defence.
In his decision, Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca found that Michael Theriault was not acting in self-defence or trying to make a lawful arrest when he struck Miller in the face with a four-foot long metal pipe near the end of the altercation, after his eye had already been badly damaged.
For this reason, Theriault, who was initially charged with aggravated assault, was only found guilty of simple assault.
Theriault's brother, who was also charged in connection with the attack on Miller, was acquitted.
“As I stood banging on the door of the home at 113 Erickson Drive, blood dripping from my face, pleading for help, I thought that Michael Theriault was going to kill me with a steel pipe,” Miller said in a victim impact statement read aloud by the Crown during the sentencing hearing for Theriault in September.
“I was handcuffed and charged, while Michael Theriault walked away completely free. No one questioned him. Only I was worthy of suspicion. I believe that this was because of the colour of my skin.”
Di Luca said while the Crown did not allege that the attack on Miller was racially-motivated, "the racialized context with which the offence took place cannot be ignored," adding that community concern about race and policing is at an "all-time high."
"Racism has infected the relationship between the police and the community," he said. "The Black community has suffered deep wounds...The broader impact of this event must be understood within that context."
He said Theriault’s conduct amounts to breach of public trust, noting that even though he was off-duty at the time, he was still acting as a cop in some capacity when he handcuffed and searched Miller after Durham Regional Police officers arrived on scene.
The judge also noted that Theriault “completely failed to follow his training.”
“Mr. Theriault is a trained police constable... he had training on use of force and also on effecting safe arrests,” he said.
Released on bail
Released on bail
The Crown initially recommended that Theriault serve 12 to 15 months in jail for the assault on Miller while the defence argued that an absolute discharge or conditional sentence would be more appropriate given that Theriault has no criminal record, has never been charged with a criminal offence before, and is remorseful for his actions.
Di Luca said while Theriault is a "relatively youthful" first-time offender, a conditional sentence would not be appropriate in this case, noting that "real jail time" would be necessary to adequately denounce this type of conduct.
As a part of Theriault's sentence, he must serve 12 months probation after he is released from jail and the judge also imposed a five-year weapons prohibition order.
Di Luca noted that Theriault's career in policing is likely over and he will therefore no longer need to be licensed to carry a firearm.
Theriault was suspended with pay from the Toronto Police Service in July 2017. In a statement issued on Thursday afternoon, the Toronto Police Service said that Theriault will now be suspended without pay and the Professional Standards Unit will resume an investigation that was put on hold while the court proceedings unfolded.
The Waterloo Regional Police Service will also complete its review of the police handling of the incident and deliver it to the Toronto Police Service Board, according to the statement.
"Today’s outcome does not change the life-altering injuries sustained by Mr. Dafonte Miller," Interim Police Chief Ramer said in the statement. "This case has created a further divide between the police and the Black community, especially those who have lived experiences of discrimination in the justice system or by police. We will continue to take the steps necessary to rebuild trust with our communities and to ensure accountability and transparency."
Theriault was taken into custody following his sentencing but was released on bail later on Thursday afternoon while he awaits the results of an appeal of his conviction.
His laywer also told CP24 that Theriault may also choose to appeal his sentence.
Speaking directly to the accused while reading his sentencing decision on Thursday, Di Luca urged Theriault not to let the incident prevent him from carrying out a productive life in the future.
"You committed a serious, violent offence that will have a long-lasting impact on many people, including you, your family, the community, and most of all, Mr. Miller and his family," the judge said.
"I also urge you to remember that even though this is the low point in your life, your life should not be solely defined by what happened here."
Di Luca also wished Miller and his family well in their healing process.
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, lawyer Julian Falconer said the jail sentence was fit, but it will never bring closure to Miller, whose life has been changed.
“The net result of nine months imprisonment for Michael Theriault is not going to give Dafonte Miller his eye back. The net result of nine months imprisonment for Michael Theriault is not going to take away the deep mistrust he will have for police for the rest of his life,” Falconer said.
“The net result of nine months in prison will never make up for the absolute humiliation of Dafonte Miller on Dec. 28, 2016.”
Falconer lauded Di Luca’s decision, saying the reasons for the sentence “are nothing short of historic.”
“We want to express our 100 per cent support for these reasons for sentence because they represent an important, groundbreaking recognition, not only as to the existence of racism but how its existence can be incorporated into the work we do as officers of the court,” Falconer said.
Miller, who is not expected to speak today, released a statement through his lawyer on Wednesday.
"Throughout this process, all I have ever wanted was for those responsible for causing me harm and altering my life be held accountable. The sentencing decision, whatever it may be, is an important step in the accountability process," the statement read.