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Manslaughter could be hard to prove in Edmonton officer shooting, experts say

Police investigate the scene where two officers were shot and killed on duty in Edmonton on Thursday, March 16, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson Police investigate the scene where two officers were shot and killed on duty in Edmonton on Thursday, March 16, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
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Manslaughter charges against a man accused of selling a gun to a 16-year-old boy who took his own life after fatally shooting two Edmonton police officers is an unusual case that might be difficult to prove, legal experts say.

Police arrested 19-year-old Dennis Okeymow last month. He faces three counts of manslaughter for the deaths of the officers and the young shooter, identified in court records as Roman Shewchuk. Okeymow is also charged with criminal negligence causing death and criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

"It's exceptionally unusual. That's the first time I've ever heard of (an alleged) gun trafficker being charged for a death related to a gun that's been trafficked," said Tony Paisana, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and past chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s national criminal justice section. 

"I can't say it's never happened, but I've never heard of it."

Const. Brett Ryan and Const. Travis Jordan were responding to a call about a family dispute at an apartment building on March 16 when Shewchuk gunned them down. 

Police said the boy also shot and wounded his mother during a struggle over the gun. 

He then shot and killed himself. 

Staff Sgt. Eric Stewart, with the Edmonton police guns and gang unit, told a news conference last week that the charges are unique, but investigators obtained good evidence to support them. 

"If you put yourself in that situation and you sell a gun illegally, you ought to know what could happen," he said. 

Paisana said the problem with the charge is proving the accused would have been able to foresee what unfolded.

"If you are selling a gun to someone who says 'I can't wait to go out and shoot somebody with it,' you probably have some good idea if you follow through with that transaction, it could result in harm that is non-trivial in nature," he said.

"If you sell a gun to someone and they say nothing, that argument becomes more difficult. And so that's where the rubber will hit the road in terms of proving the elements of the offence."

Two accomplices were convicted of manslaughter in the shooting deaths of four Mounties in Mayerthorpe, Alta., in 2005.

Shawn Hennessey and his brother-in-law, Dennis Cheeseman, admitted to giving the shooter, James Roszko, a gun and a ride to his property where the RCMP had been guarding a Quonset hut. 

Roszko ambushed and killed the officers before killing himself. 

"They certainly drove the guy to the place and the guy was making noises that he was going to kill cops or something like that. That's more of a direct connection than this," said veteran Calgary defence lawyer Balfour Der, who is also a former prosecutor.

He said in law, there has to be the physical act of providing a gun and a level of knowledge or foresight that a crime can or will be committed.

"I would add that without knowing more about the background facts, it seems like a stretch on the issue of causation for this charge to be able to stick," said Der. "But again, we don't know the facts."

Doug King, a justice studies professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the manslaughter charges seem to be a good fit.

"Is the selling of a gun without permits an unlawful act? Yes. Would an ordinary, cautious and prudent person see that as being an action that could lead to harm? Yes. Did somebody die from that? Yes," King said.

"So I think it fits manslaughter better than it actually fits criminal negligence causing death."

King said he's puzzled as to why the suspect would also be charged with criminal negligence causing death because it's similar to manslaughter with the same penalties.

"My sense is by charging both criminal negligence causing death and manslaughter, the Crown is thinking they can get a plea deal and it will never go to trial," he said.

"If I was going to put money down, that's what I would bet is going to happen."

Police said the shooter's mother is healing physically but has lasting psychological pain and suffering. 

The gun recovered from the scene was linked to another shooting at a nearby Pizza Hut a few days earlier that left a man badly injured. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2023.

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