Prosecutors for the man accused of intentionally running down and killing Toronto police Const. Jeffrey Northrup in the parking garage of city hall are fighting to keep a publication ban in place preventing the public from finding out why Umar Zameer was released on bail.
Lawyers for both sides attended court virtually Thursday, with Zameer's side arguing in favour of loosening the publication ban so that some of the reasons for his release can be made public. Zameer, who has been charged with first-degree murder, was also in attendance.
In a submission filed with the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto, lawyers for the Crown argue loosening the ban would "compromise the integrity of its case and cause a serious risk to the proper administration of justice."
The ban, sought by Zameer's lawyers at the outset of his bail hearing in September, has meant CBC News and other media have so far been unable to report on the details of what happened the night of July 2. Nor have news organizations been able to report the evidence presented at Zameer's bail hearing and the reasons for the judge's decision to release him after Northrup's death.
Hasan explained in court that the initial intent of the ban was to safeguard his client's right to a fair trial, but that maintaining one now would have the opposite effect because potential jurors are only hearing "one side of the story" — that of the police.
"Publication bans like this one are intended to protect the rights of the accused and the administration of justice. But in this case, maintaining the publication ban would stymie fair trial rights," Zameer's lawyer Nader Hasan told CBC News.
"Mr. Zameer's right to a fair trial is in serious jeopardy," Hasan wrote in a submission arguing to loosen the ban.
Bail questioned by elected officials
Zameer was granted bail on Sept. 22. News of the decision sparked statements of outrage on social media, including by elected officials including Ontario Premier Doug Ford as well as Toronto Mayor John Tory and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who hadn't read the judge's decision for Zameer's release.
The same day, Zameer's lawyer later indicated to the media that he would move to try to adjust the ban.
Shortly after news of Zameer's bail was made public, Ford tweeted his shock at the decision, saying it was "completely unacceptable that the person responsible for this heinous crime is now out on bail." Ford's Twitter account has some 530,000 followers.
The tweet was later deleted and replaced with a version containing slightly different wording.
Tory and Brown, both themselves lawyers, also tweeted questioning the court's decision.
Hasan argues statements like those only reinforce what he calls an "inaccurate narrative" about the incident — because police left key details about that night unaddressed.
In a news conference by Toronto Police Chief James Ramer following the incident, the chief characterized Zameer's actions as "deliberate and intentional."
'Innuendo of the worst kind'
Even if Ramer's intention wasn't to mislead the public, the effect was a combination of "inaccurate reporting and innuendo of the worst kind," Hasan told the court.
"The inaccuracies out there are replete with racist innuendo and replete with statements that this is an open-and-shut case and that Mr. Zameer is guilty," Hasan said. He added his client has been portrayed as a "terrorist, thug and a cop-killer" without being able to share any details to counter that narrative.
A Section 517 publication ban under the Criminal Code is granted automatically when requested by the defence side and is discretionary when requested by the Crown.
Assistant Crown attorney Karen Simone argued the prosecution would have asked for a discretionary ban — one the judge can decide whether to grant — had it known Hasan would seek to loosen the ban at a later date.
Simone expressed concern that releasing further information about the case could negatively affect a trial both for the Crown's purposes and Zameer's.
She also argued Zameer isn't the first accused to have his release questioned by elected officials and added bail is often a highly politicized subject.
Decision expected mid-January
Justice Jill Copeland responded by citing a 1988 Supreme Court of Canada decision that characterized such behaviour as "reckless."
However, she also said she was concerned that the release of further information could only fuel speculation about the case.
The Crown has now asked the court for a discretionary application of the existing ban.
It will be up to Justice Copeland to decide whether to partially lift the ban as requested by Zameer's lawyers, or to maintain it per the Crown's request.
Copeland has reserved her decision and said she anticipates providing a written ruling around mid-January.