Two Winnipeg police officers have been found not guilty of fabricating evidence in a case where the key witness against them was a well-respected Crown attorney.
Const. Graeme Beattie, 33, and Const. Paul Clark, 44, walked out of court today as free men after a judge ruled obstruction of justice charges against them hadn’t been proven "beyond a reasonable doubt."
A brief conversation between veteran prosecutor Erin Magas and the two officers more than three years ago was at the heart of the unusual case.
Magas testified she had to drop charges of trafficking and proceeds of crime against a 20-year-old man after she learned Beattie and Clark had fabricated evidence. The revelation came during a meeting with the officers just as they were to testify at a preliminary hearing in October 2008, she said.
Defence lawyers had argued the incident was a "simple misunderstanding" between Magas and the officers. They accused Magas of having a poor memory of what the officers told her, being confused about the exact circumstances of the arrest and even "intimidating" the two accused. But Magas insisted she had no doubt about what the police officers admitted to, which she recorded the same day in a memo that was forwarded to her supervisor and which ultimately led to charges against Beattie and Clark.
In their original story, Beattie and Clark said they were on patrol when they saw four men fighting in the backyard of a Redwood Avenue home. They said they got out of their cruiser to stop the melee, and the men scattered. They said one ran into the house and dropped a bag, which they picked up and found to be filled with cocaine. They followed him inside -- without a warrant -- and found him with more cocaine and some cash and arrested him, they said.
But Magas told court the story changed drastically when Beattie and Clark asked to speak privately and asked whether she knew if a videotape of the incident existed.
"They told me there was no fight; they saw four known drug dealers sitting on lawn chairs," Magas testified. Beattie told her they got out of the vehicle to speak with the men, who fled. One of them ran into the home and dropped a bag -- but they didn't pick it up to check the contents until after they had gone into the home, spotted the accused with drugs and arrested him, Magas recounted.
Beattie insists he picked the drugs up before entering the home, a fact reflected in his notes. But he told court that a few days before the preliminary hearing Clark pointed out his separate notes claimed Beattie picked up the bag of drugs only when he left the house having already made the arrest.
Special prosecutor Robert Tapper argued some elements of what the two officers said after the incident was "absurd." He said notes made by Beattie about what transpired during the arrest and seizure were "nonsense."
"He's all over the map," Tapper said in closing arguments earlier this year. "It just didn't happen."
Beattie admitted on the witness stand he didn't protest when Magas accused him of botching the drug investigation and warned he could face serious legal consequences. But he said his silence shouldn't be taken as a sign of misconduct. Under intense cross-examination, Beattie repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and suggested he and his partner are the victims of a terrible misunderstanding. He said the only thing he is guilty of is not properly explaining himself at the time the incident came up.
"I wasn't clear. If I was we wouldn't be here today," he said. But Tapper wasn't buying it, hammering Beattie about why he would keep quiet on an issue that let a suspected drug dealer go free and has now put his career on the line.
"You didn't ask why? You didn't say 'Good grief, you're letting this drug trafficker off, we didn't do anything wrong?' " asked Tapper.
Beattie said he couldn’t explain his lack of reaction but rejected Tapper's suggestion he was secretly "relieved" the truth had come out.
Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal had reserved his decision until today, where he returned to court and said there was insufficient evidence to find the officers guilty.