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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

RCMP refuses to release witness's video of taser death

October 30, 2007
Jonathan Fowlie and Chad Skelton, CanWest News Service

A 25-year-old Victoria man is fighting to get a video back from police that he believes will set the record straight on what happened in the Taser death of Robert Dziekanski. In a statement of claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court last week, Paul Pritchard says he lent a series of high-quality videos from the incident to an RCMP officer on the explicit understanding they would be returned within 48 hours. Now, he says, the RCMP are refusing to give the videos back, saying they plan to hold them for up to two-and-a-half years. On Tuesday, Pritchard refused to speak directly to the media, though his lawyer explained he is pursuing the case because he believes the truth should get out.

Robert Dziekanski, 40, died at the Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 14 after he was shocked with a Taser and subdued by three RCMP officers.

There is a mixture of frustration that the police are going back on their word and a sense of public duty that he wants the truth to come out about this situation and for the public to receive an accurate representation of what happened," said Pritchard's lawyer Paul Pearson. "He feels the detail level on the video will help with clarifying what happened."

The Polish immigrant did not speak English and was reportedly confused and agitated after two days of travel. Security staff initially found Dziekanski shouting and throwing chairs in the international arrivals area, police have said.

On Tuesday, Pearson said his client witnessed the entire exchange and recorded it on his high-quality digital camera before being asked to hand it over to police. In an interview Tuesday, Cpl. Dale Carr, spokesman for the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, said investigators had returned Pritchard's camera and given him a new memory card, but that they were holding the video to ensure the integrity of the investigation.

"We want to ensure that any future witnesses that we need to interview are able to give us an account of what they saw and not what they learned through video," he said. "We feel this is an important investigation ... and we want to get to the truth of the matter through a fair and unbiased account from any potential witnesses." It is a line of argument a Vancouver defence lawyer said he does not believe. "I don't buy it all," said Mike Tammen, noting police routinely give out their version of events in such incidents.

"In my opinion, certain police agencies in this province rely on the witness-contamination card when it suits their purposes, yet are not shy about releasing things that might potentially contaminate witnesses when that equally suits their purposes."

He also said broadcasting the video could actually help police investigate the incident. "They release video footage of things when they say it will be helpful to them for people to come forward," he said. "If they have good video footage of this incident, what do they have to hide? Why don't they want people coming forward?" Citing a similar argument, Pearson also took issue with Carr's line of reasoning. "They have been releasing multiple pieces of detailed information and I would suggest it is now not fair for them to suggest that the videotape would compromise their investigation when they have been very willing to come forward with accounts of what have happened that seem to justify the use of the Taser on Dziekanski," he said.

Not everyone, however, disagreed with the police. Anthony Sheppard, a law professor at the University of B.C., said police have good reason to fear that release of the footage could harm their investigation. "If this video is released to the media and is shown on the news, prospective witnesses might watch the video and have their recollections ... tampered with," said Sheppard. "Different witnesses may have different impressions of what happened," he said. "And that's what we want. We don't want them all watching the same video and expressing the view recorded by the camera."

For his part Carr held firm, saying the police plan to keep the video until they feel its release would no longer compromise the investigation. At that point, he said, investigators will likely turn it over to the coroner, after which it will likely be returned to Pritchard. "We feel that for the sake of this investigation, for the sake of ... the Dziekanski family that's the best way to handle it," he said. "If we are criticized for doing that, we are prepared to take that criticism," he added.

And in today's Vancouver Sun: We do not advocate any action that might jeopardize the police probe, but we strongly believe it is in the public interest the video be shown. Much more than the reputation of local police officers is at stake. The world is watching.

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