A jury in Nelson has found RCMP officer Jason Tait not guilty of manslaughter and of dangerous driving.
The decision came on Nov. 6 after five hours of deliberation following a six-week trial.
On Jan. 29, 2015, Tait attempted to pull over drunk driver Waylon Edey on the highway near Castlegar. When Edey did not stop, a series of events occurred that led to Tait fatally shooting Edey.
The trial concerned whether Tait’s use of force was necessary and reasonable in the circumstances.
In an email to the Nelson Star on Nov. 7, Tait’s lawyer David Butcher wrote, “Jason and his wife, Julie, are very relieved that more than five and a half years of anguish are over. The evidence was very clear that Const. Tait was simply trying to carry out his duty to make the roads of the West Kootenay safer for every road user and pedestrian by trying to arrest a prolific, highly intoxicated, repeatedly prohibited driver.”
When Edey did not stop for Tait’s lights and siren on the highway near Castlegar, Tait overtook Edey and passed him, then placed his car across the westbound lane on the Kinnaird Bridge leading into Castlegar, blocking Edey’s path.
Tait testified in the trial that it was immediately apparent that Edey did not intend to stop. Afraid for his life, he exited his car and ran across the eastbound lane, expecting that Edey was about to ram his vehicle.
Edey’s vehicle then veered into the eastbound lane, heading straight for Tait, who testified that he expected to be run over and killed. As he ran across the eastbound lane he fired four shots at the driver’s windshield of Edey’s vehicle and then narrowly escaped being run over by it.
In summary comments to the jury on Nov. 6, Crown prosecutor Brian McKinley’s position was that Tait moved on foot into the eastbound lane to confront Edey, an unnecessary and dangerous move that led to Edey’s death.
Defence lawyer David Butcher said Tait had testified that he left his vehicle and ran across the eastbound lane to save his own life, expecting his car to be rammed.
McKinley told the jury the Crown’s evidence showed that Tait’s decision to cut off the path of Edey’s vehicle was dangerous and unnecessary and led eventually to Edey’s death.
“Constable Tait’s actions … were a marked and substantial departure from what a reasonable police officer would have done in the circumstances,” McKinley said.
Butcher said the defence evidence showed that Tait’s decision to cut off Edey was a calculated risk designed to prevent an intoxicated driver from entering downtown Castlegar.
“Waylon Edey was a danger to each and every person who drives or walks on our streets,” Butcher said. “He was disdainful of the law. He was an outlaw in every way. Const. Tait is hired by all of us to protect us from people like Mr. Edey. He had a duty to act.”
The investigation of Edey’s death was done by the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), the agency that investigates incidents in which people are injured or killed by police officers. The IIO decides whether to recommend to the Crown that criminal charges be laid, as they did in this case.
Butcher, in his remarks to the jury and in his email to the Nelson Star was sharply critical of the IIO’s investigation and of the Crown’s decision to charge Tait and take the case to trial.
“The investigation and prosecution of a completely innocent man cost millions of taxpayer dollars,” he wrote. “Thankfully, the jury – a random collection of everyday folk from the Nelson area – used their common sense and life experience to bring the five and a half years of nonsense to an end in less than five hours.”
In response, the provincial Crown office said in an email that the Crown applies a two-way test to decide whether to approve charges: there must be a substantial likelihood of conviction based on the evidence gathered by the investigating agency, and the prosecution is in the public interest.
“The BCPS approved charges in this case after concluding that the charge assessment standard for proceeding with criminal charges was met,” the email states. “The same standard is applied to all reports to Crown Counsel. While the verdict in this case is not the result the BCPS advocated for, we respect the jury system and the judicial process that supports it.”
Ronald MacDonald, the chief civilian director of the IIO, told the Nelson Star in an interview that the agency stands by its investigation in the Tait matter and disputes Butcher’s allegation that the investigation was incompetent.
He pointed out that before the matter came to a trial, a judge in a preliminary hearing had decided there was enough evidence to try the case.
In any event, he said, “This trial was not about the competence of the IIO investigation. It was about whether or not the officer in this case had breached the criminal law.”
He said the fact that a jury found Tait not guilty should not lead to the conclusion that the case should not have gone to trial.
The last six paragraphs of this story were added on Nov. 12.