Alliston-area woman killed in 2010 incident south of Owen Sound
Owen Sound courthouse
A man who left one woman dead and his fiancee critically injured when the manure spreader he was hauling by tractor on a narrow Chatsworth farm lane ran them over was acquitted on all criminal charges in the Superior Court of Justice, Tuesday.
Laurie Porteous left the courthouse a free man, while his former fiancee and her clutch of supporters left in tears.
Sareena Denesiuk, 26, of the Alliston area died and April Smith, 27 at the time, of Chatsworth Township survived her critical injuries.
Justice Terrence O'Connor said the law requires him to acquit Porteous since the evidence left him unsure what really happened on that farm lane July 2, 2010 at Spey River Farm.
“I find I am unsure as to what happened in those few crucial moments,” after Smith and Porteous parted, just before he set off with a full load of manure to spread it. Less than a minute later, Smith and Denesiuk were run over by the spreader.
After summarizing his decision and releasing written copies of the full judgment, he turned to Smith, who was seated in the body of the court, and told her he hoped she carefully reads his reasons for judgment to understand why he had to acquit.
But in an interview afterward, Smith wasn't in an understanding mood. She said she was hoping for a conviction.
“The law sucks,” she said. “I’ll probably never get over it. I'll be stuck with this for the rest of my life. Hopefully one day it will just be a faded memory.”
Smith said she suffers from anxiety, doesn't sleep or eat properly and is in pain. Now living in Collingwood, she has four children who have also suffered emotionally from what happened, she said.
Her head was run over by the manure spreader wheels, which broke her jaw bone, ribs, collarbone and a few teeth. Her liver was gashed.
The defence had characterized the mishap as a "tragic farm accident," while the Crown considered it a deliberate attempt by Porteous to "scare" and "humiliate" the women by driving a tractor at them, right after Porteous allegedly told his fiancee they were through, something Porteous denied at trial.
Court heard at trial it was an emotionally charged day for Smith because Porteous was supposed to pick up Smith's sister and her sister’s children at the Toronto bus station and return them for a long visit after a years-long absence. Smith had gone to the farm looking for Porteous to find out why he wasn't getting ready to go.
But O'Connor said it wasn't clear that the women were walking ahead or beside the tractor, where Porteous could have seen them. If it was clear the women were where they should have been visible there would have been a conviction on dangerous driving and possibly criminal negligence, he said.
The women might also have taken a side path, called the silo path at trial, out of harm's way, as the defence alleged. Porteous testified the last place he saw them was near the top of the path. If that’s the case, they must have returned down the steep and slippery foot path and walked up to and beside the slow-moving tractor before they were crushed as the wide spreader negotiated a curve on the narrow lane.
O'Connor acknowledged Porteous testified the equipment he was operating was dangerous and shouldn't be operated when people were nearby.
“However, in my view, the evidence does not prove that it is more likely than not that Mr. Porteous was aware of the women's presence near his tractor when he started along the road.”
He found Porteous not guilty on two sets of charges: criminal negligence causing death and causing bodily harm, and dangerous driving causing death and causing bodily harm.
O'Connor delivered his judgment in an Owen Sound courtroom after 11 days of trial in October. Porteous was originally charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder, but the charges were reduced after a four-day preliminary hearing determined insufficient evidence existed to commit Porteous to trial on those charges.
O'Connor said he generally found Porteous a more credible witness than Smith, though the judge said he didn’t believe everything the accused man said, either.
O'Connor noted Smith's acquired brain injury as a child impairs her recollection, makes her irritable and prone to lose her temper, factors to consider when assessing her credibility and the reliability of her evidence, he said.
He cited a couple of examples which indicated Smith's “compromised ability to precisely recall and relate past events due to her medical difficulties.”
Defence lawyer Brian Barrie said in an interview after court that Porteous chose to leave the courthouse immediately after the decision, so as not to antagonize those who were upset with the decision, by commenting.
“I’m very pleased for Laurie. He's gone through a very long and difficult matter. And the tragedy is that if you recall his evidence at trial, he did not want this to occur, had no animosity toward her and in fact, at that time as he testified, still loved her.
“And I think what this does is it reflects that this is really just a tragic farm accident, as we had characterized it from the beginning.”
Asked about the possibility of a Crown appeal, Barrie said “its very difficult a case like this because the Court of Appeal recognizes that it's the judge or trier of fact that should have the right to make the credibility decisions about the witnesses that he or she sees.”
Those assessments as required by law formed the basis of the decision.
Grey County Crown attorney Michael Martin said he would consult senior colleagues on the question of an appeal of what he called “a reasoned decision.”
“Although I am disappointed in the outcome, I acknowledge the effort he (Justice O'Connor) has put in to considering the evidentiary basis provided by both the Crown and the defence.”