“It’s not open season on trespassers,” said noted Hamilton criminal defense lawyer Dean Paquette, after the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a decision to order a retrial in the case of Peter Khill, a Binbrook man acquitted of second degree murder in the fatal shooting of unarmed Six Nations man Jonathan Styres.
“You’re not simply allowed to kill someone because they’re taking your property or they’re on your property,” Paquette, who is not involved in the case, told the Two Row Times. “You have to present a justification on reasonable grounds as to why you feel justified in responding to that perceived threat as you do.”
Last week’s supreme court decision has been met with relief and fury alike, with many arguing that Binbrook homeowner Peter Khill acted in self-defense, while others argued that a person should not be murdered for trespassing.
Styres, 29, was fatally shot on Feb. 4, 2016 around 3 a.m. on Khill’s property just outside of Hamilton, Ont. The Six Nations man was attempting to break into a truck on the property when Khill grabbed a gun from his closet, loaded it and “quietly” went outside and shot Styres, according to the judgement.
The judgment said that Khill went outside, saw someone leaned over the passenger seat, yelled, “hey, hands up” and then fatally shot Styres.
Khill approached Styres after shooting him and searched him for a gun but only found a pocket knife, the judgment noted.
Khill said he acted in self-defense and believed Styres had a gun. A jury acquitted Khill of second-degree murder and the Crown appealed the decision.
Paquette, who has participated in hundreds of homicide cases over his 40-year career, said unlike some jurisdictions in the United States, homeowners cannot kill trespassers with impunity.
He pointed to section 34 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which spells out the justification for self-defence against an unprovoked assault.
Section 34 (1) states: ‘everyone who is unlawfully assaulted without having provoked the assault is justified in repelling force by force if the force he uses is not intended to cause death or grievous bodily harm and is no more than is necessary to enable him to defend himself.’
Section 2 says a person is justified in causing death while repelling an assault if he believes on reasonable grounds that he cannot preserve himself from death or grievous bodily harm.
In this case, the jury was not properly instructed to consider Khill’s actions, which the Supreme Court judgment noted was a “serious error.”
“Mr. Khill’s role in the incident should have been expressly drawn to the attention of the jury,” Justice Sheilah Martin said in her judgment. “The absence of any explanation concerning the legal significance of Mr. Khill’s role in the incident was a serious error.”
“Self-defense will still be left with the jury (in the new trial). But Khill’s own conduct during the incident wasn’t left with the jury to consider and is one of the factors to be considered whether or not self-defense was established,” he said. “So determining whether or not Khill’s conduct was reasonable under the circumstances, the court and the jury is required to consider all relevant circumstances of Khill…including a series of factors that are enumerated in section 34 (2) of the Criminal Code, one of which is Mr. Khill’s role in the incident.”
The decision was met with relief by both the family and Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Council, who issued a statement last week commending the Supreme Court decision.
“Six Nations of the Grand River is pleased that the Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision to order a new trial in the case of Peter Khill, who shot and killed Jonathan Styres, a young Haudenosaunee man and a Six Nations Band Member,” Six Nations Council said in the statement.
Khill was acquitted of second-degree murder in June 2018. The decision was appealed by the Crown, and the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the not-guilty verdict and ordered a new trial.
“Our people deserve a justice system that functions well and serves all people with equity, a system in which we can place our trust,” council said. “This case has been dragging on for over five years, and our community continues to extend our support to the family members of Jonathan Styres, who are also members of Six Nations. (The) decision by the Supreme Court is an encouraging step towards a more comprehensive resolution of the case, so that the truth may be known and justice may be achieved. It is our hope that this new trial will be fair, focus on accountability, and pursue the truth.”
Lindsay Hill, Styres’ partner and mother of their two daughters, said she is grateful for the decision to order a re-trial.
“A new trial for Jon’s killer means new hope that Jon will get the justice he deserves. This news is bittersweet though. The last five and a half years have been an extremely difficult, emotional rollercoaster for my children and I. We think of Jon every day and we miss him every day. The Supreme Court’s decision brings to the forefront the problem with the acquittal, the jury system and highlights the complexities of ensuring that juries are fair and given the proper information to effectively assist them.”
Hill said, “Indigenous people are all too familiar with the problems in the judicial system, in a time when it seems many in Canada are just starting to realize the systemic barriers that Indigenous people have faced, past and present. We await the court to set both the criminal and civil court dates.”
Elected Council said it plans to follow the case closely as they “demand justice for Jonathan Styres and an equitable system worthy of our people’s trust.”