HAMILTON — The second-degree murder trial of a white homeowner charged with gunning down an Indigenous man who was allegedly stealing his 15-year-old pickup truck got underway Tuesday under close watch of First Nations leaders in Ontario.
The case has some similarities to the racially fraught trial and acquittal earlier this year of a white Saskatchewan farmer accused of murdering an Indigenous man.
In his opening statement, Crown lawyer James Nadel told jurors that the white accused, Peter Khill, shot Jon Styres, 29, in the early hours of Feb. 4, 2016.
The shooting took place on the driveway in front of Khill’s rural home outside Hamilton.
“(This was) a killing that never should have happened,” Nadel told the trial, noting that the muzzle of Khill’s shotgun was less than four metres from Styres’ chest.
In brief opening comments, defence lawyer Jeffrey Manishen admitted his client, who has no criminal record and has pleaded not guilty, killed Styres, of Ohsweken, Ont., on the Six Nations Reserve.
“He did in fact shoot John Styres twice with a shotgun,” Manishen told the five women and seven men on the jury. “(Styres) died of those injuries.”
Khill, then a 26-year-old mechanical technician and licensed millwright, had served as a reservist with a Brantford artillery regiment of the Canadian Armed Forces. He has been on bail since shortly after his arrest and, dressed in a suit and tie, quietly watched proceedings from his lawyers’ table.
Hamilton Const. Matthew Robinson testified to responding to a distress call from a woman that her boyfriend had shot someone on the driveway. He arrested Khill at the scene, court heard.
The accused was calm, co-operative and “in awe” at what had happened, and said at one point he had tried to save the victim, Robsinson said.
The officer said Khill made several statements while in the back of the cruiser.
“I’m a soldier. That’s how we were trained. I came out. He raised his hands to like a gun height. It was dark. I thought I was in trouble. Does self-defence mean anything in court?” Robinson recounted Khill saying.
The case has shades of the emotionally charged acquittal by an all-white jury of white Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley, who was accused of murdering an Indigenous youth, Colten Boushie, in August 2016.
That jury heard Boushie and some friends had been drinking before they broke into a truck on one farm, then headed onto Stanley’s property to ask for help for a flat tire. Stanley testified that he thought his ATV was being stolen. After firing warning shots, he said his gun went off accidentally, striking Boushie in the head.
The Boushie case led to protests against a justice system Indigenous people argued was racist, even prompting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to say Canada has to “do better.”
In a statement on Monday, Six Nations Chief Ava Hill said Styres’ death has had a “significant impact” on the community and the trial would be closely watched.
“Indigenous people will not feel safe until there is a justice system in place that values Indigenous lives,” Hill said.
Jurors at the trial before Superior Court Justice Stephen Glithero were all asked whether they could be impartial given the races of accused and victim.
The first witness, Hamilton Const. Jeffery Hahn, testified that he responded to a shooting call at a home, which he said was in near total darkness with the exception of a bright front porch light.
“Where is the gun?” Hahn said he yelled at a woman on the porch. A male voice by the pickup truck in the driveway responded it was in the house.
“I said to him: ‘Where’s the guy?’ He pointed and said, Over here. He’s not breathing’.”
Hahn said he saw a person on his back next to the truck, knelt in the muck, and began doing chest compressions.
“I could hear the sound of air escaping from his chest,” Hahn told the court.
Hahn cut away the victim’s clothing to discover “quite a large hole” in the man’s upper left chest. Paramedics soon pronounced the victim dead.
The officer testified the passenger door of a GMC pickup — the lock had been “punched” to facilitate entry — was open and the side of the steering column was damaged. Power to the dash and radio was on but no keys were in the ignition.
The trial continues Wednesday.