A coroner’s inquest into the shooting death of James Reginald Butters by an RCMP officer in Port Hardy began in a Campbell River courtroom Tuesday.
Butters (a.k.a. James Hayward), 24, died on July 8, 2015 following a police-involved shooting after Port Hardy RCMP members responded to a call of a male uttering threats.
It was just after 11 a.m. when the Port Hardy RCMP responded to a complaint of a man making threats towards security staff at Port Hardy Secondary School, where a staging area for a wildfire burning throughout the previous week had been set up. The man, later identified as Butters, was wielding a knife.
According to the Independent Investigation Office’s report, witnesses said after being confronted by the RCMP, Butters moved toward the police with the knife in his hand and was shot to the ground. Other witnesses said Butters then got up and continued toward the police and was shot again and again fell.
Paramedics were then called and Butters was pronounced dead at the scene.
The presiding coroner conducting the hearing is Lyn Blenkinsop and a five-person jury, composed of three women and two men, will hear the evidence and make recommendations at the end of hearing.
Blenkinsop told the jury and the gallery that a coroner’s inquest has three goals:
- To determine the facts as they relate to a death, specifically the identity of the deceased, how, when, where and by what means the deceased came to his death.
- To make recommendations, where appropriate and supported by the evidence, that may prevent future loss of life in similar circumstances.
- As a means for satisfying a community that the circumstances surrounding the death of one of its members will not be overlooked, concealed or ignored.
Inquest counsel John Orr is conducting the proceedings and outlined his overview of the situation.
In his overview on Tuesday, Orr explained that James Butters had “a difficult childhood” and had some trouble with law, including a jail sentence. During his incarceration he underwent some counselling and was diagnosed as having some mental health problems that required medication. He was released from prison and returned to the community and made use of mental health services in Port Hardy. As a result, the inquest will hear from a prison psychologist who treated Butters and from a mental health worker involved in providing services to him in Port Hardy.
The testimony began on Tuesday by hearing from Butters’ aunt, Nora Hayward, and then from a friend in Port Hardy, Jessica Hryko.
Nora Hayward was authorized to speak on behalf James’ birth mother and step-mother, both of whom declined to appear as witnesses. Hayward read from a prepared statement and remembered her nephew fondly.
“My nephew was a shy, gentle young man,” Nora Hayward told the coroner’s inquest. “James wanted to become a dad and became interested in making the world a better place. James was concerned about the health of the planet and tried to keep his (ecological) footprint as small as possible.”
He did however, face challenges in his life resulting in him being sentenced to jail time, where he was diagnosed with a mental illness and prescribed medication to treat it.
Orr explained to the jury that there is often a delay between an incident and a coroner’s inquest. In this case, there had been an Independent Investigations Office (IIO) investigation into the actions of the RCMP officers in the incident involved. That investigation looked into whether charges should arise from the police’s actions. A report was issued by the IIO in 2017 clearing the police officer involved of any wrongdoing.
Participating in the case is David Kwan, a lawyer representing the Attorney-General of Canada and the RCMP.
On Tuesday, the inquiry was set to hear from a mental health worker in Port Hardy as well as Butters’ probation officer.
On Wednesday, the inquest expects to hear from public witnesses to the incident. The jury will hear from a lot of people who witnessed the event and saw it from different perspectives, Orr said.
“It happened in a very public area, an intersection in Port Hardy on a main road and there were quite a lot of people around in cars and walking on the street that saw this,” Orr said.
There will also be some forensic evidence given and the police officers involved in the shooting are scheduled to testify Thursday.
On Friday, there will be evidence given about the nature of the RCMP officers’ training and what’s called the use of force. An expert witness will be called to talk about that. There will also be some discussion on crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques.
A psychologist from the prison is set to talk to the jury by video conference on Friday.
On Monday, the pathologist who conducted the post mortem on Butters will testify.
“You will find that that’s important evidence for you, being as it will show what injuries he incurred as a result of the shooting,” Orr told the jury.
The IIO will be heard from as the final witnesses on Monday. Then on Tuesday, the jury “will be doing all the work” by deliberating on the evidence they heard.