MONTREAL - A taxi driver who allegedly ran over a man in a morbid incident seen on a Youtube video is now allowed to get back behind the wheel.
A judge granted bail Wednesday to Guercy Edmond, while fellow cabbies crowded around the Montreal courthouse and greeted the decision by ceremoniously honking their horns.
The 47-year-old taxi driver was released after a hearing where details emerged about his highly publicized case. There were allegations of a racially charged encounter with three intoxicated clients, which supposedly escalated during a ride in the wee hours Sunday.
After hearing the testimony a judge declared that Edmond — who is accused of four crimes, including hit-and-run — clearly acted in panic.
The judge scolded the prosecution for keeping the man in jail since the weekend, and also chided it for failing to produce any video evidence in court. The judge fumed that even he had seen the images, on TV, and expressed exasperation that it hadn't been filed as evidence.
While awaiting his next court date Edmond can continue driving a cab, under several conditions. They include that he refrain from picking up fares between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. in the sector of downtown Montreal where the alleged incident occurred.
His wife signed an undertaking for $3,000 bail and Edmond also agreed to not have any contact with three people involved in last weekend's altercation, including the 23-year-old man who was run over, Benoit Kapelli. The man has suffered serious, but not life-threatening, injuries.
Judge Jean-Pierre Boyer called the man's four-day detention "scandalous" and "unjustified." He noted that it was not his role to rule on the merits of the case, but he told Edmond he appeared to have been surrounded and felt under attack.
"I'm convinced there was panic in your actions. I'm convinced," Boyer told Edmond, who has no criminal record.
Wednesday's news was greeted jubilantly by scores of fellow taxi drivers who blocked the streets around the courthouse with their cars, honking their horns.
Inside the court, new details emerged about the events that led to the alleged hit-and-run.
Police said witnesses told them the taxi driver had already tried mowing down the victim once, before the cameras started rolling.
A Montreal police investigator, Det.-Sgt. Frederic Gagne, told the bail hearing that the videos only tell the second part of the story.
What happened previously over a one-kilometre, traffic-delayed drive remains under investigation and, Gagne said, it's not clear who started it.
Police said they heard about an altercation over a fare that became hostile and became racially charged. According to testimony they gathered, there was a verbal exchange during the ride about rituals like voodoo and female genital mutilation.
Edmond is Haitian. The three passengers were white.
Police said that was just one step in an escalating confrontation that centred around a dispute about the fare. The driver said it was $9; the passengers said it was $5.
During the argument, Edmond claims he was struck by Kapelli inside the cab. Later, before eyewitnesses began filming, Edmond is alleged to have tossed a bottle at the passengers and brandished a weapon — a snow brush.
He then tried running over his eventual victim — but missed, slamming into a lamp post and damaging his car, according to testimony gathered by the police.
Edmond told authorities he simply lost control of his vehicle. The driver's lawyer said his client was trying to dial 911 while staying away from the swarm of people around him.
"He was trying to do many things at the same time: he was trying to dial 911, he was trying to avoid the people, he was driving and trying to escape and he was very, very nervous," lawyer Yves Vaillancourt said outside the courtroom.
What happened next is caught in a series of cellphone videos.
The passengers, now pedestrians, swarmed around the vehicle, kicking it. One man even jumped atop the vehicle and stomped on it.
Then the gruesome encounter occurred.
Vaillancourt said his client was focused on one side of the car and didn't see the person he ran over. The lawyer noted that his client drove toward a police station after the incident and that he was the one who alerted police he was under threat of being lynched.
Asked why Edmond didn't leave earlier, the lawyer said there simply wasn't any opportunity. He said his client felt compelled to get away because he feared his life was in danger.
"When he decided to leave it was too impossible for him," Vaillancourt said.
Edmond is charged with aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, hit-and-run and dangerous driving.
The diminutive cabbie, who rents his vehicle and has been driving for nearly a decade, told the court that he doesn't usually drive downtown and is based at the airport.
Edmond took the stand and said that he had been seeking a few additional fares that night, so he headed downtown after dropping off a client.
Edmond said he works between five and seven days a week, shifts of more than 15 hours, to make ends meet.
Scores of fellow cab drivers gathered outside the courthouse. They pushed and jostled for a place in a courtroom to be able to hear the case. An overflow room had to be opened for the large group.
They also blocked the street in front of the courthouse, honking their horns. A spokesman for one of the associations said taxi drivers will begin collecting funds for Edmond's legal defence.
Stevens Joseph, whose family owns the cab that Edmond drives, said many other drivers have experienced similarly tense situations.
"It's a big victory for us that he's been released," Joseph said. "All taxi drivers are ready to help Edmond any way they can."
Vaillancourt said that's what he intends to argue.
"We can see that on the video, there are some people on each side of the car and they are all aggressive," said Vaillancourt. "If it's not self-defence, it's something similar."
The case returns to court on June 20.