British Columbia

Calls for change as manslaughter trial for RCMP officers accused in death of Dale Culver called off

Crown lawyers says the original forensic report indicating Dale Culver died in part because of blunt force trauma to the head is no longer valid, and they no longer see a path to conviction in the case.

Crown says original forensic report indicating blunt force trauma to the head is no longer valid

People standing beside a large blanket that says "Dale Culver."
Dale Culver's family members stand silent as a drum group played before the court hearing. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Prosecutors have stayed manslaughter charges against two B.C. RCMP officers in the 2017 death of an Indigenous man after a pathologist determined Dale Culver died of a heart attack, not blunt force trauma as was initially believed.

Prosecutor Joseph Saulnier told a provincial court judge in the Prince George courthouse Friday the Crown decided to end proceedings against Const. Paul Ste-Marie and Const. Jean Francois Monette after asking Ontario chief forensic pathologist Michael Pollanen to review the conclusions of the first pathologist to examine Culver's death.

The 35-year-old Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en man died in police custody on July 18, 2017, after being arrested and struggling with police.

His death and its aftermath have been viewed by civil rights advocates and First Nations leadership groups as a key test of the B.C. justice system's ability to hold police accountable, with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) saying it believes it is the first time law enforcement in the province had been charged in the death of an Indigenous man.

But new findings shared by Crown counsel Friday doomed the case against Ste-Marie and Monette.

WATCH | Lily Speed-Namox speaks about her father's death: 

Daughter of man who died in RCMP custody calls for justice

2 months ago
Duration 2:05
Lily Speed-Namox was 14 when her father Dale Culver, a 35-year-old Gixsan and Wet'suwet'en man, died in police custody in 2017 after being arrested by RCMP. She spoke outside the Prince George, B.C. courthouse after it was announced manslaughter charges against two Mounties are being stayed. That means the trial will be paused and if not resumed within a year, it will be treated as if it never started.

Saulnier said Pollanen's report concluded Culver died of cardiac arrest brought on by sustained use of methamphetamines and the struggle with police "contributed to or exacerbated his conditions."

"Obviously Dale Culver did not deserve to die, should not have died that day," Saulnier told Judge Paul Dohm. "However, in light of the new evidence there is no basis to find these accused legally culpable for his death."

A stay of proceedings puts a trial on pause and, if it is not resumed within a year, it is treated as if it never started under B.C. law.

Culver punched in head by police, finds report

BCCLA policy counsel Meghan McDermott called Friday's news "disgusting."

"We are used to being disappointed by public systems of accountability but this one is just [exceptional]," she said in an interview with CBC News, adding she was disappointed the Crown had not opted to try and pursue a lesser charge against the officers.

"We cannot call what we have a justice system if this is what we get out of it."

A photo of a man outside a courthouse.
A photo of Dale Culver, who was 35 when he died in police custody in 2017, was displayed outside the Prince George courthouse. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Meanwhile, Chris Voller, one of the directors of the National Police Federation, the union representing front-line Mounties, posted a statement on social media focusing on the impact the charges had on the accused. "There have been 2,453 sleepless nights these members have had to endure. 

"These members still have a shadow cast over their career and personal life indefinitely," he wrote. "The journey to reclaiming their name and rebuilding shattered trust is a herculean task ... Exoneration comes too late in the biased and relentless court of public opinion."

According to a statement issued Friday by the B.C. Prosecution Service, Culver was arrested in downtown Prince George after police responded to a call about a suspicious man on foot looking into cars. The caller said the suspect was white and may have been working with someone on a bicycle, the statement says.

Culver was in the area, riding a BMX bike without a helmet. A chase and fight ensued after he refused to stop for a police officer, resulting in a call for assistance from all other officers in the area.

"Const. Ste-Marie was the first to arrive. He … punched Mr. Culver at least once in the head. The next officer arrived, Const. Monette, who kicked or kneed him in the head or upper body," according to the statement.

"When paramedics arrived, Mr. Culver was initially responsive. He stood up outside the vehicle, but then collapsed and died 29 minutes after the conclusion of his interaction with the police, which was approximately three minutes."

Ste-Marie and Monette were among five police officers charged in connection with Culver's death. Three RCMP officers — Const. Arthur Dalman, Sgt. Bayani (Jon) Eusebio Cruz and Const. Clarence (Alex) Alexander MacDonald — have pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice related to allegations efforts were made to delete witness video of the incident.

Tears and outrage in courtroom

The stay of proceedings was received with tears and outrage from roughly 60 family members and supporters who were in the courtroom to hear the case Friday, including Culver's daughter, cousins and an aunt who had raised him.

WATCH | Details and reaction to charges being stayed: 

Charges stayed for Prince George Mounties accused of killing Indigenous man

2 months ago
Duration 2:17
The daughter of Dale Culver, an Indigenous man who died in RCMP custody in 2017, says her faith in the justice system is wavering after Crown lawyers announced they are no longer pursuing manslaughter charges against the officers associated with his death. Our Andrew Kurjata has more on why charges were stayed.

The judge addressed the gallery, pointing to the need to ensure that "innocent people are not wrongfully convicted of a crime."

"Mr. Culver died in very sad and tragic services. Understandably, there is a desire in some to want someone to be held accountable for this loss," he said. "But Crown can only attempt to do that when there is sufficient compelling and reliable evidence to support criminal prosecution." 

Culver's daughter Lily Speed-Namox, who was 14 when he died, stood up as court was adjourned, saying "it must be nice" for lawyers and RCMP officers to go home every day "and see their sons and their daughters and their mothers and their cousins."

Outside, she spoke to reporters alongside Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Namoks and Culver's cousin, Debbie Pierre, who was raised alongside him.

"To call our system a justice system is not true," she said.

Three people stand outside a courthouse.
Lily Speed-Namox, centre, stands outside the Prince George courthouse after hearing that manslaughter charges in the death of her father, Dale Culver, are no longer being pursued. She is joined by Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Namoks (John Ridsdale) and Culver's cousin, Debbie Pierre. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

"The fact is, whether or not my dad had a heart condition ... what caused the heart attack was those RCMP officers, and I stand by that statement."

Speed-Namox said she is now pinning her hopes on the obstruction of justice cases. Dates for those hearings have not been set.

Calls for reform

Defense lawyer David Butcher said it was unfair to both the accused officers and Culver's family that it took so long to get to this point.

"These two police officers have had this hanging over their heads for seven years now, and the family have had questions and uncertainty for that long," he said in the court room. "These things have to be done better and they have to be done better, because everybody suffers."

Pierre, Culver's cousin, also expressed her frustration with how long it had taken only for the case to end without a trial.

"We need to start looking at the justice system right now," she said, adding her family plans to pursue an independent inquiry into what happened to Culver.

In his written statement, Voller also noted the length of time the investigation and court case had taken, saying "such prolonged processes not only delay justice, like the exoneration of these members, but also subject them to prolonged stress and uncertainty."

Earlier in the week, the BCCLA had issued a public news release pushing for the case against RCMP to be moved forward, noting it had been nearly seven years since he died.

The organization contended the delays were an illustration of how slowly the justice system can move for people who believe their family has been harmed by law enforcement, noting they had documented 379 police-related deaths in B.C. since Culver, with only a handful of charges laid.

A group of people holding signs reading "Justice" and "No Justice No Peace."
Roughly 100 supporters, friends and family members stood outside the Prince George courthouse for a rally on April 5, 2024. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

McDermott said there had been some optimism that public bodies were taking the cases more seriously in the wake of racial justice movements in both Canada and the United States, but she felt that Friday's decision was the "same old, same old," and would have a ripple effect on other individuals hoping for justice.

"This is just a really bad omen for all of us about the state of our accountability processes," she said.

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Grand Chief Stewart Phillip issued a statement following the Crown's announcement calling on B.C. to live up to its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"We are deeply outraged that manslaughter charges against these publicly paid RCMP officers who killed Dale Culver have been dropped. Now is the time for major changes to B.C.'s Police Act, before these racial tensions boil over," Phillip said.

"Officers must be held accountable for each and every death of an Indigenous person at the hands of police. We are not dispensable. This has to stop."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a CBC British Columbia journalist born and based in Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George, B.C. He has covered the people and politics of northern British Columbia for more than a decade. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.