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Canada  

Zameer acquittal demonstrates why politicians should keep quiet on bail, lawyer says

'Cheap political points'

A leading voice for criminal lawyers in Canada says police and political leaders need to learn the consequences of weighing in on bail decisions.

And Boris Bytensky, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, says the case of Umar Zameer offers a perfect teachable moment.

"The mere fact that you're making comments as public officials ... it really harms the reputation in the system of justice," Bytensky said in an interview Tuesday.

"It doesn't help give respect to the system of justice, which is ultimately what we need.... If the public doesn't respect this system of justice and individual judges, they're not going to have respect for the law."

A jury found Zameer not guilty Sunday in the death of Toronto police Const. Jeffrey Northrup, who was run over in an underground parking garage in July 2021.

Zameer was granted bail some months later — a decision that drew public criticism from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who at the time called his release "beyond comprehension" and "completely unacceptable."

But it wasn't until the jury was sequestered last week that Canadians learned just how weak the case against Zameer had turned out to be.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Jill Copeland, who is now an Appeal Court judge, said in her ruling she found the case "weak," noting in particular that the lack of evidence regarding motive was a "significant weakness."

Former Toronto mayor John Tory also spoke out against Zameer's release. Since the verdict, he's acknowledged having learned lessons from the ordeal, according to a report from The Toronto Star.

At the time, Ford cited Zameer's release as an example of the justice system needing "to get its act together," and put "victims and their families ahead of criminals."

The premier struck a decidedly different tone Tuesday.

"It's a very sad situation that happened and I respect the court's decision. My heart goes out to Margaret and her family as well," he said, a reference to Northrup's widow.

"At that time I had limited information. The courts have decided, the jury decided and you have to respect the justice system."

Ford's original comments have since been proven meritless, the Federation of Ontario Law Associations said in a statement. It's unacceptable for leaders "to spread misinformation about our criminal justice system and to score cheap political points at the expense of courts and judges," said Douglas Judson, chair of the federation.

Not only do politicians lack the facts to talk about specific bail decisions, but when they do, it hurts the reputation of the justice system and the presumption of innocence, Bytensky said.

Zameer's case provides an opportunity to better educate Canadians about how the system works and what "presumed innocent" really means, he added.

"We pay lip service to the presumption of innocence, but I don't think we really consider it," Bytensky said.

Shakir Rahim, who directs the criminal justice program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said Zameer's case underscores why bail is "essential" to protect Canadians, even those charged with serious crimes.

"Without bail, Mr. Zameer — an innocent man — would have spent three years in jail," he said. "This case is not unusual. Half of criminal cases in Canada do not result in a guilty verdict."

After the jury's verdict came down Sunday, the judge went so far as to apologize to Zameer for what he'd been forced to endure.



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