POLITICS

Probe into cell death of troubled teen groans under weight of legal battles

10/22/2012 04:10 EDT | Updated 12/22/2012 05:12 EST
TORONTO - The labyrinthine probe into the cell death of troubled teenager Ashley Smith five years ago resumes Tuesday amid legal wrangling over the scope of the inquest and whether the public can see disturbing surveillance videos.

The wrangling, which has resulted in numerous motions, is again threatening to derail the inquest, which was scheduled to begin hearing evidence in January.

Federal correctional authorities threw the latest curve ball by calling on presiding coroner, Dr. John Carlisle, to ban public disclosure of videos of Smith's treatment.

Julian Falconer, who speaks for Smith's family, blasted the government's position as a "state coverup," and said he planned to put the videos on the public record as part of a separate battle over what the inquest should examine.

"If Correctional Services has its way, we will simply never get to the key questions, because they will have cut us off at the pass," Falconer said Monday.

"The essential question is what the various doctors and prison officials in the various provinces did to Ashley."

In October 2007, Smith, 19, choked to death at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., after repeated bouts of self-harm.

She had spent her final year in solitary confinement. She was shunted 17 times among nine different prisons in five provinces with little treatment for her mental illness.

Among other things, the videos Ottawa wants sealed show Smith being physically restrained for hours at a time. At one point, she was strapped to a gurney in a wet security gown for hours, records show.

The videos also show staff at the Joliette Institution in Montreal giving Smith intravenous drugs without her consent. On one occasion, guards in riot gear surrounded the handcuffed Smith as she was injected.

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, called the videos she saw "shocking and disturbing."

"My description of these events would not convey a complete and accurate account of how Ashley was treated to the jury," Pate said in an affidavit last year.

The family and the province's child advocate say there is widespread public interest in why Smith died in "such abject conditions."

Last month, Carlisle said it was essential to delve into how authorities dealt with Smith, including during her stays in prisons outside Ontario.

To that end, Carlisle was set to subpoena three out-of-province psychiatrists who treated her _ Jeffrey Penn, of Truro, N.S., Renee Fugere, of Montreal, and Olajide Adelugba, of Saskatoon — until three Ontario doctors backed by Correctional Service Canada balked.

They argue Carlisle's jurisdiction extends only to the Ontario border.

The wrangling has frustrated inquest participants.

"We are now dealing with six separate motions and only have two days scheduled in which to do so, and there appear to be over 25 counsel involved," lawyer Howard Rubel said in a plaintive email to the parties last week.

In an interview Monday, Rubel, who speaks for the prison guards union, said he wants to ensure the hearing gets going as scheduled in January.

The guards oppose the government's sealing motion and welcome the wide scope Carlisle envisages, he said.

"Their concern is that there are other female offenders at risk, and who have been at risk for quite a number of years now," Rubel said.

"We have to back off arguing procedural points and focus on the facts of this case."

The inquest under Carlisle is the second one into Smith's death. The first was aborted last year when the presiding coroner, Dr. Bonita Porter, announced her retirement after months of acrimonious legal battles.