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Attempted murder: the prosecution's uphill battle

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 "Ironically, had Ms. W died from the shooting it would have been easier to prove murder, because that can be done in two ways. Including the less onerous route of meaning to cause bodily harm that the accused knows is likely to cause death and is reckless whether death ensues or not." Justice Chris Martin

Attempted murder: those two words, strung together, strike fear to any warm-blooded heart for sure. 

Sadly, the charge seems to be more frequently seen in Winnipeg than ever before.

In fact, in what our police service says is a city where serious crime is dropping, attempted murder is one of the only categories of violent criminal activity that's on the rise.  

And while on the surface of things, a case may appear to be one of an attempt to kill, by the time it goes through the court wringer and scrutiny, I'd be willing to bet most, if not all, are never made out to be attempted murder. 

An exclusive report I wrote last week about Jared Smoke's trial is educational on how difficult attempted murder is to prove, and the uphill battle prosecutors have to try and demonstrate a suspect's intent and state of mind in all but the most clear-cut cases.

(Perhaps ones where a police officer might hear an assault suspect blurt out: "I'm going to kill you!," before an arrest takes place.)

Smoke was acquitted after a trial in the Court of Queen's Bench. But he was found guilty of several lesser, but included offences, aggravated assault and discharge firearm with intent to wound.

The report in the newspaper was cut down substantially to make it fit in the paper, but the acquittal on the most serious charge raised questions about how this could have happened given the facts revealed in the article.  

Out of fairness, I thought it would be a good idea to reproduce virtually all of Justice Chris Martin's decision verbatim in order that the general public who couldn't be there for the decision could see the systematic nature of how he arrived at it. 

Warning: the facts are somewhat graphic in spots. It's an awful case of cruel violence no matter how you slice it.

Smoke is to be sentenced on the charges he was found guilty of later this year.

It will be interesting to see the position prosecutors Daniel Chaput and Adam Bergen take on how much time he should serve. 

Note: names of the victim and witnesses have been redacted by me because they're not germaine to the decision overall. I urge you to read the explanation of the W.D. analysis as set out in the first link below. 

Justice Chris Martin, March 13, 2014 Decision in R v. Jared Smoke - Attempted murder trial (included offences of aggravated assault and discharge firearm at issue, as are several weapons-related charges.)

Martin, J:

"Determining Mr. Smoke's culpability involves an assessment of both non-contentious evidence and the reliability and credibility of several witnesses, including Mr. Smoke, to which a W.D. analysis must be applied.

For the most part, my consideration of the charges and discussion of the evidence will be limited to the legal issues before me. At this point, I intend to outline what I mostly consider to be the non-contentious evidence surrounding or related the shooting.

Later, in the analysis portion in this decision, I will refer more specifically to the elements of the offences, the defence of accident and the more specific evidence that needs to be considered to determine the individual issues.

Turning first, then, to the non-contentious facts:

In the fall of 2009, Ms. W was living in a suite on Furby Street in Winnipeg with her two infant children, aged about four months and two years. Mr. Smoke was her sometimes-boyfriend. He was the biological father of the four-month old. Mr. Smoke would frequently stay at Ms. W's suite. When he did, he slept in her bedroom at the back of the suite.

In relation to Mr. Smoke, Mr. E.P. was also staying in the suite that October. His girlfriend, E.C., would come over and became friends with Ms. W.

Weeks before the shooting, Mr. Smoke and E.P were together when they got jumped by a group of men, perhaps part of a street gang. After, for his protection, Mr. Smoke acquired a .204 Ruger bolt-action rifle. The rifle was capable of holding one bullet in the firing chamber and one more in the magazine. He had it altered by cutting off part of the barrel on one end, and the stock on the other end. Due to the length of the barrel alone, or the overall length of the rifle - by law, it was a prohibited weapon.

From my handling of the weapon, it is fairly heavy and cumbersome and especially cumbersome to hold with one hand because of the way the stock has been altered or fashioned into a pistol-grip. The bolt action is designed for right-hand operation. The safety is a small lever beside the bolt. To switch the safety off, it must be manually pushed forward to the firing position.

Mr. Smoke did not have bullets for the rifle when he acquired it. So at his request, E.P. arranged for E.C. to buy some on her home reserve. Mr. Smoke testified that he carried the rifle with him, loaded, in a bag or sometimes down his pant leg.

On Oct. 21, 2009, Mr. Smoke, EP and EC were at Ms. W's with her and her children. Another relation of Mr. Smoke, a man named Darrel, was also there. It was late in the afternoon. Mr. Smoke and Ms. W got into a heated physical altercation over his having another relationship with another woman. He admitted to beating Ms. W in the living room before dragging her to her bedroom where he was going to beat her more.

At the bedroom, she was on the floor near the door threshold. It appears that her head and torso were in the room and her legs out of the room. Mr. Smoke punched her several more times and kicked her. He then quickly turned and got the .204 rifle from a chest of drawers or a closet in the room. He said he had put it there a few hours earlier, when he had a nap in the room. It had been in a bag.

When he turned back to face her as she lay in the doorway area, the gun fired. She was shot in her right arm which she held up in front of her head in a defensive, blocking manner. The gun would have been angled downward when it discharged. The bullet struck her forearm and then her head.

The medical report noted massive destruction to her right forearm, significant soft tissue defect, major nerve damage to the muscles supplying her forearm and hand and arterial injury. The bullet then apparently glanced by her right cheek, right skull area, causing a scalp wound and fracture of both her cheek and skull.

EP and EC were in the bedroom, along with the four-month-old infant when the shooting happened. EP saw what happened but EC did not as she purposely looked away during the assault. Everyone then fled the suite, leaving Ms. W in a pool of blood, the four-month-old on the bed and the two-year-old wandering about.

Mr. Smoke says he tossed the rifle in a nearby dumpster. A neighbour heard the screaming from the suite and a woman yelling, 'no.' (inaudible). She also heard a loud bang. She immediately called police. The police broke into the suite and along with paramedics, attended to Mr. W and the children. After, police searched the suite and found several items of interest.

One, a box of .204 bullets ... under a cushion on the couch in the living room. Two, a .22 bullet on the fireplace mantel in the living room. Three, a loaded, single-shot, sawed off, .22-calibre rifle in the dresser in Ms. W's bedroom. They also recovered the .204 calibre rifle from the dumpster. This rifle had one spent bullet casing in the firing chamber, and five live bullets in the magazine.

Mr. Smoke turned himself into police custody about a month later. His police interview and statement was admitted as part of the Crown's case. While he did not say much in the statement, he did say that he did not intend to kill her, and that it all happened very fast.

Since his arrest about 4 1/2 years ago, Mr. Smoke and Ms. W had many discussions, some about this event. Most notably, police intercepted a telephone call from Mr. Smoke to Ms. W on Feb. 4, 2011, days before his preliminary inquiry. He told her that, and I quote: 'All you got to do is say it was an accident, it was an honest accident, I love him, it was my fault. He shouldn't be in jail.'

And he told her what he would say. In cross-examination, Mr. Smoke agreed that passages from the transcript of the intercepted call sound like he did not want her to tell the truth. However he maintained that the point of the phone call was to encourage her to tell the truth.

Finally, by the time of trial, Ms. W mostly recovered from her injuries but she is left with some residual effects and scarring.

With this background in mind, I turn to the consideration of the analysis of the issues.

The first issue in the first portion of the analysis then, is what if any offence has the Crown proven Mr. Smoke committed by handling the .204-calibre rifle when it discharged?

The Crown position is that it's proven, through evidence that a common-sense inference from the proven facts, that Mr. Smoke specifically intended to kill Ms. W. through the rifle discharge. The facts they rely on include:

1] Mr. Smoke was assaulting Ms. W when he dragged her into the bedroom to continue the assault.
2] That he was 'seeing red,' so to speak, in terms of his anger at her.
3] That he retrieved the rifle from where he put it.
4] That he was holding the rifle in a shooting position with his right hand on the pistol grip and finger on the trigger, using his left had to support or hold the rifle by the fore stock.
5] That the safety of the rifle was disengaged so the rifle was in a firing position.
6] The rifle was aimed downward at Ms. W's head area when it discharged.
7] After shooting he fled the scene without any attempt to check on her, or help her and disposed of the rifle.

The Crown says the inferences to be drawn from these facts are that the only reason for dragging her to the bedroom was to access the gun that he knew was there. And, in shooting her at near point-blank range toward the head, he intended to kill her. Further, his post-offence conduct supports this inference in that it demonstrates the shooting was not an accident.

They say that Mr. Smoke's and Ms. W's testimony to the effect the shooting was an accident is a fabrication and both inconsistent with the evidence and logic.

The defence says the opposite. This was an accident, and as such no liability should flow from it. They say his police statement and his testimony supports this, or at the very least ,raises a reasonable doubt. He was trying to leave the bedroom with the rifle when Ms. W - as she testified - grabbed for the rifle and it discharged accidentally. Mr. Smoke would not have known it was loaded because he stored it in a closet or drawer unloaded, just before he took his nap a few hours earlier.

I now turn to Mr. Smoke's testimony.

The classic WD analysis must be applied to Mr. Smoke's testimony and police statement. To cut to the quick respecting steps one and two, I neither believe, nor am I left with a reasonable doubt about several key points.

First, while I accept he dragged Ms. W to the bedroom to continue the assault, I reject that he did so to be out of the childrens' or plain sight or for privacy. Clearly he was angry. He wanted to continue beating her and she was no match for him. There was yelling and screaming for all to hear. So loud, a neighbour could hear it.

Tellingly, Mr. Smoke retrieved the .204-calibre rifle almost immediately after dragging Ms. W to the bedroom. In other words, whatever physical beating he wanted to continue, it wasn't much. I do not accept that he wanted to continue the beating only in private. Everyone old enough to understand what was going on in that apartment knew what was going on. There was no real reason to drag her to the bedroom except to get the rifle and to use it in some manner as part of his overall assault upon her.

Second, I reject his evidence that he unloaded the rifle before he napped so that it would be safely stored, and his evidence that he did not know the calibre 204 bullets were in the rifle is nonsensical. I say this for three main reasons.

1] It is inconsistent with his testimony that a) he carried the weapon everywhere he went for his protection because he'd been jumped and shot at weeks before and b) he arranged to get the bullets ... and they were for the .204 rifle he kept. Clearly it was his rifle and his ammunition. The two go hand in hand. It is far more logical that the stored the rifle loaded while he slept so, if necessary, it was ready for its purpose - for his defence.

2] Further, he testified that the unloaded the weapon at another location and he brought it to the apartment unloaded. This would mean he was effectively unarmed when he made his way over to Ms. W's, however he came there. And thus the whole point of having a sawed-off gun for protection from others who shot at him before would have been defeated. This also makes no sense.

3] To accept his evidence would be to imply that someone else in the apartment got the rifle from his bag, fully loaded it, cocked it by positioning the bolt, put the safety in the firing position and replaced it where he had put it all while he napped two feet away or had a brief shower. This is farfetched.

Further, none of Ms. W, EP or EC said they did this. (Darrel) did not testify but it would be pure speculation, without a hint of evidence, that he did this. Others would have seen it.

Thus, it follows on these three points that I also reject his evidence that the rifle was not in the bag immediately before the shooting. On the contrary, I find that he removed it from the bag at that point.

Third, I reject his evidence that he had said just before the shooting, 'f-k this, I'm leaving.' This is nothing but a fabrication to support his claim that he did not intend to use the rifle as part of the assault. If it were true, there was no reason for him to obtain the rifle out of the bag. If he was leaving the apartment at that moment, there was no reason not to take it sealed in the bag, the same way he brought it into the apartment even if he had concealed it, on other occasions, down his pants.

This is not a small detail that would be overlooked in a state of anger. Further, he admitted in cross-examination that he may have said other things to Ms. W when he grabbed the gun, things such as: 'is this what you want?'

Fourth, for the reasons I have mentioned and those that follow, I reject his evidence that he did not pull the trigger but it accidentally discharged when Ms. W grabbed the gun. He admitted his finger was on the trigger as he held the rifle, the bolt was closed, the weapon was cocked and the safety was off. Handling the rifle the way he described is completely contrary to his evidence that he was safety-minded with the weapon in the suite.

Further, if Ms. W did grab the gun, or grabbed at the gun three times as she swears - or even once - Mr. Smoke could have easily been able to move beyond her reach as he stood above her or instantly slipped his finger off the trigger. As well, she said she reached up for the rifle, thus it must have been pointed toward her as opposed to hanging down beside his leg toward the ground, as one might have expected, given the nature of the altered stock and pistol grip and its weight.

... this angle at the point of firing is also consistent with forensic evidence.

Finally, her reaction to defensively putting up her right arm means she instinctively perceived danger from his holding the rifle despite his testimony that the way he handled the rifle gave no cause for (inaudible).

Having rejected his evidence as I have, I must also consider what other evidence there is, essentially the third step of the WD analysis.

I start by noting what is likely fairly obvious at this point: I reject Ms. W's evidence that she grabbed at the rifle three times and it discharged accidentally.

She says she lied to police and lied at the preliminary inquiry. She now says her trial testimony is the truth. On critical points, it is not. The evidence of her earlier versions, the reason for saying what she did when she did, the evidence of the intercepted call from Mr. Smoke to Ms. W during which they discussed their evidence, the context of their relationship which included her accepting fault for being shot because she should not have started the argument - all point to her trial testimony respecting how she got shot as being fiction.

This is distinct from occasional moments of spontaneous honesty that she had in testifying on some critical matters, such as her testifying that she put her arm up for defence.

So what remains?

First, there's the non-contentious evidence that I referred to earlier. Most material is that Ms. W was shot with the .204-calibre rifle by Mr. Smoke. Second, there's no credible evidence of anyone else in the suite holding or possessing that weapon or ammunition during any of the relevant timeframe surrounding the shooting.

Third, I have rejected both (Mr.) Smoke's and (Ms.) W's evidence of an accidental discharge. Finally, all of this is inconsistent with EP's evidence he saw everything that took place in the bedroom. He was clear Ms. W did not grab the rifle just before she was shot. I accept this testimony.

Thus on the evidence I have accepted, and in part for reasons set out in the WD analysis I will not repeat, I find that Mr. Smoke possessed the loaded .204 calibre firearm when he entered the suite, that he left it loaded in a bag in a closet or in a drawer in the bedroom and that he retrieved the loaded weapon during the course of beating Ms. W. Further, in the end, there is no credible evidence to support the notion that the gun discharged accidentally.

Indeed there is good evidence and strong inferences to find Mr. Smoke pulled the trigger and meant to do so. In rejecting his and Ms. W's evidence I find that Mr. Smoke pulled the trigger that caused the shot to Ms. W.

I pause to note that I would have been satisfied based on the Crown's evidence and submission that the shooting was not accidental even without EP's evidence. Further, to be clear, I find that neither pulling the trigger, nor where the rifle was pointed with and fired was an accident.

Having rejected, factually, the defence of accident - in other words having been satisfied by the Crown as to the requisite elements in that particular respect, I need not analyze whether or how such defence could have been available to Mr. Smoke, in law, with specific offences he faces especially considering how the shooting occurred while he was committing other unlawful acts namely assault and possession of a loaded prohibited weapon.

The issue, thus becomes what do I find him anything guilty of? The onus remains on the Crown to prove all of the essential elements of the charges, including his intent or state of mind. Three comments are warranted at this point.

First, while I have rejected his explanation of the shooting, I cannot use that rejection to find an inference that he must have intended to kill her.

Second, I disagree with the Crown's position that his conduct after the shooting points to the offence he committed. I need not rely on his post-offence conduct to be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that he pulled the trigger and it was not an accident. This post-offence conduct evidence is also not properly available to consider whether he had the specific intent to kill on firing of the weapon.

And in any event, I find his flight and tossing of the weapon to be equivocal. It is not evidence solely of consciousness of guilt. It is equally indicative of panic knowing that he'd shot Ms. W.

As to the intercepted call evidence, a number of competing inferences arise, but it clear that the phone call was essentially aimed at whether he pulled the trigger, not what his intention was in so doing.

Having made the findings that I have, on the evidence that I've accepted, Again, I not need consider this aspect further.

Third, regarding the most serious charge, the attempted murder - it is among the most difficult for the Crown to prove. Because there is only one the of state of mind that will suffice to ground such a conviction. Of course, the Supreme Court of Canada has made this clear in R v [inaudible] and other cases.

As demonstrated by the precedents referred by both counsel, the specific facts, background and nuances of a particular case are critical as to whether proof of a specific intent to kill has been made out.

Ironically, had Ms. W died from the shooting it would have been easier to prove murder, because that can be done in two ways. Including the less onerous route of meaning to cause bodily harm that the accused knows is likely to cause death and is reckless whether death ensues or not.

Having noted these cautions, on my findings, there remains a reasonable inference that Mr. Smoke intended to kill Ms. W. Yet when the Crown must rely on inference to establish the state of mind for attempted murder, it is all the more difficult because one must also ask, on the proven facts, whether there is another reasonable inference to which the benefit of the doubt must be given to the accused.

In this case, I find that there is such an inference here. Specifically, that he meant to use the gun in the assault and in doing so he discharged the gun but without specifically meaning to kill her. Clearly, the shooting took place during a violent argument that escalated and took place very quickly.

This, in the context of the relationship generally, and more specifically his comments at the time of, 'f--k this,' or 'f--k this, is this what you want' and his response to police that he did not intend to kill her raise the spectre of a plausible inference that he meant to shoot her, but without the specific intent to kill her.

Thus, to paraphrase the Supreme Court of Canada in [inaudible], respecting the meaning of reasonable doubt, I am not sure that he specifically intended to kill her. And as such he's entitled to the reasonable count on this issue.

I find him not guilty of attempted murder.

What remains is ... "

Martin goes on to convict Smoke of aggravated assault and discharge firearm with intent to wound. He will be sentenced later this year, also by Martin.

Should be interesting to hear the Crown's position on the sentence he should receive.

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About James Turner

James Turner rejoined the Free Press as a justice-beat reporter in August 2013 after a number of years away working at other media outlets, including the Winnipeg Sun and CBC Manitoba.

A reporter in Winnipeg since 2005, he got his first taste of the justice beat as a former Free Press intern, then as the newspaper's police reporter from 2008-09.

Among the topics he's eager to cover are youth crime, street gangs, child-welfare and how the mental health and justice systems intersect.

An avid blogger and early adopter of Twitter, James (@heyjturner) loves to write long, much to the frustration of his editors.

He despises animal cruelty. He loves 80s music and his tubby labrador retriever.

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