TORONTO - In a high-profile case fraught with delays, a Toronto coroner must now decide whether to continue or entirely restart an inquest into the death of a young woman in an Ontario prison.
The proceedings are aiming to find out why 19-year-old Ashley Smith was able to choke herself to death with a strip of cloth at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., almost four years ago.
Smith's family is demanding the inquest be restarted after a new coroner took over the case this summer, but other parties argue such a step would move the already sluggish proceedings backward.
The inquest began in May, but after a jury initially sat for three days and another three days were taken up by procedural wrangling, the case's original coroner, Dr. Bonita Porter, abruptly announced the proceedings would adjourn.
She then said she planned to retired in November, which led to the case being handed to a new coroner, Dr. John Carlisle.
Proceedings under Carlisle resumed last week, but were quickly adjourned when the Smith family submitted a motion challenging his jurisdiction to pick up on an inquest which started under someone else.
The court convened again Monday to hear submissions on the motion and Smith family lawyer Julian Falconer said a "mistrial" should be declared.
"This proceeding has been fraught with problems, literally from Day 1 and what we're trying to do is get a fresh start," he told reporters outside court.
"We think there's real legal problems with attempting to inherit the proceeding with the stage that we're at. We're suggesting that we start over and we get it right."
Falconer said the family isn't opposed to Carlisle presiding over a new inquest, but just wants to start over. He added that restarting the inquest would also mean Carlisle wouldn't have to grapple with ruling on issues Porter had heard evidence on.
His position was opposed by at least five of the 13 parties who have standing at the hearing.
John McNair, representing St. Joseph's Hospital in London, Ont., told the court there was no need to restart the inquest, particularly since it had already been delayed a number of times.
He added that Ontario's chief coroner had appointed Carlisle to the case to carry on proceedings already underway.
"This inquest should simply be continued and resumed," McNair said in an interview. "We think that that's the fairest and most expeditious way of going forward."
Carlisle said he would consider submissions from both sides, but didn't elaborate on when he would deliver his decision.
If the inquest were to resume where it left off, Carlisle would have to rule on three outstanding issues.
They deal with whether the faces of prison guards should be blurred in videos entered into evidence, whether Quebec videos showing Smith being drugged and restrained during a prison transfer be shown to a jury and whether lawyers are susceptible to a contempt charge if they share evidence with the public.
Falconer argued that if inquest were restarted, those issues would not stand in the way of proceedings.
"Those things that slowed us down and didn't prove to be beneficial, we wouldn't have to inherit," he said.
Falconer also suggested that the jury and evidence already submitted in the inquest should be imported into any new proceedings. He admitted there might be legal problems with using the same jury, but said it was a situation that would be "preferable."
McNair and others opposed to the Smith family's request for a restart pounced on Falconer's proposition, saying such a situation would favour the family.
"I think the proposed new inquest is starting to look and sound similar to the current inquest," McNair told the court.
Smith had been in and out of custody since 2003, much of that time spent in segregation.
The inquest is examining the last 11 months of her life, when she was transferred between facilities 17 times.
It has heard Smith frequently tied various material around her neck and sometimes banged her head or cut herself, but wasn't trying to hurt herself intentionally — after being kept in near constant isolation much of the time, she did it for the stimulation.
Smith was first arrested at 13 for assault and causing a disturbance but her time behind bars ballooned with a number of in-custody incidents.