Michael Bryant should be judged on his merits
National Post editorial board
May 25, 2010
The details of Darcy Allen Sheppard’s death have lost none of their shock value in the nine months since his fatal altercation with former Ontario Cabinet minister Michael Bryant on Bloor Street in midtown Toronto. A fairly standard cyclist-vs.-motorist road rage incident quickly degenerated to the point that Mr. Sheppard was reaching into Mr. Bryant’s convertible, then clutching onto it as it accelerated into an oncoming lane, eventually dislodging him on a fire hydrant.
At the time, militant cyclists took to the streets declaring Mr. Sheppard’s death a “hate crime”; less militant cyclists insisted the altercation proved the need for more and better bike lanes, as if urban planning can anticipate and prevent outbursts of primal madness; and class warriors sneeringly predicted the interests of an anonymous, hardworking 33-year-old bicycle courier would be no match for those of the dapper and well-connected Mr. Bryant. We’re sure the latter will feel vindicated by yesterday’s announcement that all charges against Mr. Bryant have been withdrawn.
They were withdrawn for a very good reason, however: There was no reasonable prospect of Mr. Bryant being convicted of criminal negligence causing death or dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death. As became clear during the investigation, Mr. Sheppard instigated the altercation. He was extremely drunk, with a blood alcohol level of 0.183. And had the charges against Mr. Bryant proceeded, the court would have heard that Mr. Sheppard had exhibited “an escalating cycle of aggressiveness toward motorists.”
Yes, Mr. Bryant panicked. We’re sure he’d handle the situation very differently if only he had the chance. But for people to suggest that his reaction is worthy of serious criminal sanctions is to assume that they would behave differently in the same circumstances. Alas, nobody knows just how their fight-or-flight response is wired until it’s put to the test.
This newspaper has little in common with Mr. Bryant’s or his Liberal party’s oppressively nannyish brand of governance. It was particularly ironic to see a former attorney-general at the mercy of a justice system that he and Premier Dalton McGuinty had shamelessly abused for political gain — for example, with their nonsensical pit-bull ban and street-racing law. But no one’s career should be derailed forever by an incident such as this — there but for the grace of God go we all.
Mr. Bryant should be judged in future — politically or otherwise — according to his merits, or lack thereof.
DiManno: The 28 seconds that changed Michael Bryant’s life
‘What I will never forget is the unnecessary tragedy of that night,’ said the former attorney general
Wed May 26 2010
Live by rage, die from rage.
Darcy Allan Sheppard was a quixotic hothead consumed by demons from his awful past. But it was the devil inside him on the night of Aug. 31, 2009, that caused his death — and not the man who was once Ontario’s attorney general.
Michael Bryant was merely the hapless vehicle of fate unfolding on a hot summer’s night when all the stars aligned so tragically.
Deranged cyclist meets car. Car bumps infuriated cyclist. The cyclist was the provocateur. The driver was the terrified and disoriented wheelman.
While no conclusive videotape exists of what happened in that confrontation, the déjà vu of it, of Sheppard’s documented fury towards cars and motorists, was captured by an office worker with a camera in a nearby building during a previous and eerily similar altercation: Sheppard, enraged, assaulting a driver only three weeks earlier, spitting on the car, jumping onto the vehicle, and hanging onto the window.
“The photographs clearly show Mr. Sheppard angrily confronting the driver of the vehicle and at one point, hanging onto the car with his hands inside the driver’s window and his feet on the car’s running board,” special prosecutor Richard Peck, a Vancouver lawyer brought in to handle the case, told court Tuesday as he entered the photographs (see below) as exhibits in a packed courtroom at Old City Hall.
Sheppard, a 33-year-old bike courier, may have been a sweet guy, as described by friends, with a humorous disposition. Yet he was also a profoundly violent alcoholic with a criminal record that included two assaults and threatening to kill a cab driver while armed with imitation firearms. Most germane to this case, Sheppard had been involved in six earlier duplicate incidents — four occurring last August — including one in which an elderly woman described him as a “mad man” and another earlier that night.
A night that began with Sheppard in the back of a police cruiser which had responded to a domestic call; a night that ended, an hour later, with Bryant in the back of a police cruiser, about to be charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death.
Both charges were formally withdrawn in court on Tuesday.
Just 28 seconds was the span of time that has forever linked Bryant and Sheppard, the former flung into a vortex of notoriety and the latter sprawled lifeless on the road.
“In 28 seconds, everything can change,” said Bryant.
What had never changed, regrettably, was the pattern of confrontations that Sheppard not only instigated but seemed hell-bent on ratcheting into crises — his “escalating cycle of aggressiveness toward motorists,” said Peck.
While such previous conduct, entered in court, was not meant to “demonize” Sheppard — nor would aggressive conduct on other occasions have justified committing a criminal offence against him — Peck insisted that a propensity for violence, substantiated by credible witnesses, was relevant in determining whether Bryant had been attacked, essentially making the victim the aggressor and Bryant legitimately entitled to self-defence.
This argument found little traction with Sheppard’s friends and defenders, with one declaring afterward that “it’s open season on cyclists.” But the prosecution’s methodical analysis of events found there was no reasonable prospect of conviction on either charge. Bryant might have conducted himself differently, changing the sad outcome, but under the stress and chaos of circumstances that Sheppard had orchestrated that night — his incendiary actions, his assault on the car, his apparent attempt to take control of the Saab convertible’s steering wheel — the alarmed driver’s response was understandable rather than criminal.
“Mr. Bryant was confronted by a man who, unfortunately, was in a rage,” Peck told reporters outside court. “In such circumstances, he was legally justified in trying to get away. The case could not be proved.”
That case was this:
Bryant and his wife, Susan Abramovitch, had been out for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant to celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary. They had not consumed any alcohol, unlike Sheppard who had fallen off the wagon after eight days of sobriety, his blood alcohol level measured after death at 0.183 — more than twice the legal limit for driving a car.
But he didn’t have a car, of course. He had a bicycle and Bryant first spotted him while driving homeward around 9.30 p.m., near the intersection of Bloor and Yonge Sts., noticing a cyclist impeding another motorist by doing figure 8s in front of the car. Other witnesses would later tell police that Sheppard had been throwing garbage onto the road and yelling at drivers.
For reasons of his own, Sheppard clearly did this a lot — menacing motorists and provoking altercations.
Bryant came to a red light between Bay St. and Avenue Rd., where traffic had narrowed to a single lane both ways because of construction. Sheppard, Bryant told investigators, cycled past his car on the driver’s side and then cut in front of the vehicle, stopping directly in front of the Saab.
Bryant hit the brakes and the car stalled. Attempts to get the car started again caused it to lurch forward. There appeared to be no contact between the car and Sheppard’s bike but the cyclist was livid and he was already yelling at Bryant.
He told police afterward he was in a state of panic when, restarting the vehicle, it accelerated unintentionally, shockingly, causing Sheppard to land on the hood. Bryant hit the brakes. Only 2.5 seconds elapsed from the time the vehicle started its forward motion and when it came to a halt, having travelled a total of about 30 feet. At this point, Sheppard was not seriously injured, said Peck.
As Bryant tried to reverse the car and go around the bicycle, Sheppard tossed a backpack that contained a heavy U-shaped lock at either the hood or windshield, and then jumped on the car as Bryant — fearing that he and his wife would be attacked — tried driving away. Sheppard hung on.
Defence lawyer Marie Henein described the scenario in court: “Darcy Allen would not let him go. . . . He ran at the car and jumped onto the driver’s side. Michael believed that he was trying to climb into the car. . . . Michael tried to stop the vehicle and push Darcy Sheppard off. Darcy Sheppard would not let go. Michael wasn’t strong enough to push the 6-foot-1 Darcy Sheppard off. During this attempt, Darcy Sheppard said, ‘You are not going to get away that easy.’
“Darcy Sheppard was deep into the vehicle with his entire upper torso leaning into the vehicle. At some point, Darcy Sheppard was laughing. Michael was desperately trying to control the steering wheel but was having difficulty doing so.”
In Peck’s words, Sheppard was “latched on” to the car.
Finally regaining some control of the steering wheel, Bryant drove into oncoming traffic to get away.
Henein: “Michael was in a complete state of panic and fear. Throughout this brief but frightening attack, Susan thought they were both going to die.”
While some witnesses claimed the car climbed the curb, forensic examination determined this had not happened. But with Sheppard still clinging to the vehicle, the Saab brushed within a foot of a sidewalk fire hydrant. That jostle caused Sheppard to be dislodged from his handhold, striking his head fatally on either the curb or a raised portion of the street.
Bryant drove on around the corner, stopped at the Hotel Hyatt and called 911, waiting for police to arrive.
Peck told court the point from where Sheppard jumped onto the Saab and the spot he fell off was about 100 metres. The fact Bryant drove away — though not far — did not support allegations of errors in judgment to establish criminal liability. The fear of an accused is relevant, Peck noted; Bryant and his wife were in a convertible, vulnerable, and fearful of Sheppard.
While police acted properly in laying the charges, Peck concluded, the couple’s explanation of events and evidence collected afterward demanded that those charges be withdrawn. There was never any special treatment for Bryant because the accused was a former attorney general, he added.
Sheppard — who’d knocked around some 30 foster homes in his childhood — may have had some justification for his chronic distemper. At least, that might help explain it. But his pitiable past was not relevant to what happened last Aug. 31, though the defence — and Bryant — was careful to reference the wretchedness of Sheppard’s difficult life.
“Twenty-eight seconds and you are in the criminal justice system,” said Henein. “Twenty-eight seconds and you’re in the back of a police car. Twenty-eight seconds and you don’t go home to your children.”
Twenty-eight seconds that Bryant wishes he could take back.
“I certainly have gone back and thought about events,” he said later. “Could I have done something differently? I never would have left the house that night. I might have lingered longer on the Danforth. I might have turned right on Bay. . . ”
There is plenty of . . . if only.
The man who once appointed judges said he has been humbled’ by a different and intimate experience of the justice system.
“I now have a unique perspective, from its highest pedestal as attorney general, to its pillory, as a defendant cuffed in the back of a squad car, accused of two very serious offences involving the tragic death of a man.”
The system, he emphasized, had bent over backward to avoid any hint of impropriety. “It can bend in no other direction. It cannot and did not.”
He has no axe to grind against police or the meticulous investigation. “What I will never forget is the unnecessary tragedy of that night. A young man is dead and for his family and friends that remains the searing memory. To them I express my sympathies and sincere condolences. I have grieved that loss and I always will.”
Bryant will return now to his job with a law firm.
“This has turned out to be a tale about addiction, mental health, an independent justice system, a tragic death and a couple out on their wedding anniversary with the top down. It is not a morality play about bikes versus cars, couriers versus drivers, or about class, privilege and politics.
“It’s just about how, in 28 seconds, everything can change. And thereafter time marches on. And so will I.”
Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Darcy Allan Sheppard taunted other drivers before Michael Bryant: photos
Shannon Kari May 25, 2010
Darcy Allan Sheppard, the bike courier who died after an encounter with Michael Bryant on Bloor Street, had a documented history of clashes with drivers.
On Aug. 11, 2009 — a few short weeks before his death — Mr. Sheppard had an altercation with the driver of a BMW. Photographs of the incident were taken by an onlooker in a nearby office.
The man pictured, later identified as Darcy Sheppard, yells at him “just because you drive a fancy car you think you can drive along the wrong side of the road.”
The driver was in the oncoming lane to avoid parked delivery vehicles on a small street in Toronto’s financial district where couriers gather. At one point, Mr. Sheppard allegedly tried to reach in and grab the keys, hit the driver and grab his earpiece.
The man shoved Sheppard out of the car. That led to Sheppard allegedly making threats, spitting on the car, banging on it and jumping up on to it, before the motorist was able to drive away.