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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Judge will not allow taser footage online

Oliver Moore

Halifax — From Tuesday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Monday, Jul. 06, 2009 08:55PM EDT

Surveillance videos of a mentally ill man being tasered by police and dying 30 hours later in a struggle with jail guards, images described as “disturbing” by a lawyer for his relatives, need to be understood in context and can't be posted online, a judge ruled yesterday.

The videos, which are central to an inquiry into Howard Hyde’s death in a Dartmouth jail late in 2007, can be screened in court. And they will be shown fleetingly to the public as proceedings are streamed on-line at www.hydeinquiry.ca, with the tasering expected to be seen Tuesday. But they can’t otherwise be displayed, provincial court judge Anne Derrick decided.

The ruling was a blow to family members of the 45-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who had wanted to be able to disseminate the video images.

But whether the decision will be enough to squelch the spread of this material remains to be seen.

“It’s difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law.

“Once it’s streamed, it’s relatively trivial for someone to capture that stream and go ahead and post it.”

Prof. Geist also noted, though, that courts can issue specific rulings against using material streamed on-line, which would be enough to prevent its appearance in law-abiding venues.

The power of images to sway public opinion was highlighted after the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who was tasered five times by Mounties at the Vancouver airport only weeks before the Hyde incident.

Police initially confiscated amateur video of Mr. Dziekanski's death. Paul Pritchard went to court to get his property back and then sold it to the media. His video undermined police descriptions of the incident and caused an uproar that reverberated beyond Canada's shores.

At the time, an RCMP spokesman said that the video did not tell the whole story.

Judge Derrick made a similar point while reading her nearly hour-long decision on Monday.

“Filming of the inquiry proceedings will capture the witnesses' testimony about the video surveillance and any submissions that will be made on what inferences should be drawn from it,” she said.

“[Posting] of the images will not. Directly [posting] the video surveillance will send images to the internet without any context. Context is crucial.”

The decision pleased Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, who worries people won't understand the footage unless it is explained to them.

“They're left to assume what it means, rather than knowing and hearing the evidence from the people that were involved,” she said. “And they will be the correctional officers that will be called on to testify. It's better to be seen in the right context than to assume what it means.”

But a lawyer for Mr. Hyde's sister and brother-in-law said the decision mean members of the public could miss key nuances in the videos.

“In essence, they'll be taking a picture of a picture, so there'll be some viewing of it ... but the quality will not be as sharp,” said Kevin MacDonald. “It's difficult, you know, to view the subtleties. There are some subtleties on this video that you really have to focus on to catch. I think that will be lost.”

Mr. Hyde, a musician whose history of mental illness was known to the authorities, had been involved in earlier encounters with the police and reportedly was afraid of them. He was arrested after allegations of a domestic assault and taken to police headquarters. A fracas broke out there and police tasered him twice.

Mr. Hyde was taken to hospital and then to a Dartmouth correctional facility. He died 30 hours after his arrest.

His death was ruled accidental last year by Nova Scotia's chief medical officer, who blamed excited delirium due to his paranoid schizophrenia. Judge Derrick's inquiry, aimed at delving more deeply into the situation, began in February. It will not make findings of guilt.

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