SHERBROOKE, Que. — One of the most closely watched Canadian trials in recent years ended Friday with the acquittal of three former railway employees who were charged with criminal negligence causing the death of 47 people in the Lac-Megantic tragedy.
The jurors reached the verdict on their ninth day of deliberations.
Tom Harding, Richard Labrie and Jean Demaitre were charged with criminal negligence in the 2013 tragedy that killed 47 people when a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded.
Harding was the train's engineer, Labrie the traffic controller and Demaitre the manager of train operations.
A teary-eyed and emotional Labrie said he hopes the trial delivered the answers the 47 victims and Lac-Megantic residents were looking for.
"Even though I never spoke, I always thought of you," he said, his voice cracking. "I would like to say that Lac-Megantic residents, with what they had to go through, showed us a lot of courage and help and lots of resilience.
"I wasn't expecting to cry. It was hard, it was long, but now it's finished. I just hope we can easily turn the page and slip back into the anonymity that was ours before July 5, 2013."
Thomas Walsh, one of Harding's lawyers, spoke to reporters on his client's behalf after the verdict.
"Mr. Harding is too moved by the situation to give a coherent expression of what he feels inside," Walsh said.
"But I know he feels terribly relieved and terribly thankful to the system, the jury system, and this jury in particular."
Crown prosecutor Veronique Beauchamp said it is too early to say whether there will be an appeal.
"You'll understand it is not necessarily the decision we were expecting but we respect the verdicts that were handed down and, especially, the work the jurors put in," Beauchamp said.
"Criminal negligence causing death is one of the Criminal Code provisions that is difficult to prove."
All three accused could have been found guilty of criminal negligence causing death, while jurors had the option of convicting Harding on one of two other charges: dangerous operation of railway equipment or dangerous operation of railway equipment causing death.
Walsh said the verdict was proof the institution of trial before jury is an important one in a democratic system.
He said he still believes the trial should never have taken place.
"I think it was more proper that there be some kind of a public inquiry to find out and determine all of the circumstances that led to this tragedy — and not just the role one or two people might have played," Walsh added.
He said Harding is still facing other accusations, which are coming up later this month.
"Those are the ones we always felt were more appropriate for the situation and those are the accusations of non-conformity with the rules, something we have always admitted."
The three men all pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence.
None of the accused presented a defence at the trial, but lawyers for each told the jury in turn the Crown had failed to meet its burden of proof.
The prosecution mounted a case that the three were each criminally negligent in their own way for failing to ensure the train was safe before the wee hours of July 6, 2013.
That's when the locomotive and its cargo of crude oil from the United States rolled away and derailed in Lac-Megantic, exploding and then killing 47 people as well as destroying part of the downtown core.
The Crown argued that Harding's role was a significant one because he didn't apply a sufficient number of brakes after parking the oil-laden convoy for the night in nearby Nantes.
That left the locomotive, which weighed more than 10,000 tonnes, resting precariously on a slope 10 kilometres away from downtown Lac-Megantic.
Harding applied only half the required level of brakes and didn't test them to ensure they worked properly before leaving for the night.
Another of Harding's lawyers countered that the rail disaster was an accident resulting from a perfect storm of unforeseeable events.
"We can't hold people criminally responsible for not being perfect," Charles Shearson told the court.
Shearson said Harding admitted to not conducting a proper brake test and failing to apply a sufficient number of handbrakes, which would have prevented the train from moving after its engine was shut off.
He suggested that evidence presented during the trial demonstrated MMA didn't require its employees to perform brake tests perfectly in line with the federal regulations.
And Harding could not have foreseen the locomotive would catch fire after he left for the night, the lawyer added. Firefighters extinguished a blaze at the lead locomotive shortly before the tragedy and cut the engine, which meant the air brakes were not functioning.
The prosecution, meanwhile, also blamed Labrie and Demaitre, arguing their responsibilities included taking the necessary steps to avoid injuries and loss of life the night before the derailment.
The Crown claimed neither man deemed it necessary to check with Harding to see how many handbrakes had been applied and whether tests had been conducted.
Demaitre's lawyer, Gaetan Bourassa, argued his client had no say in safety-related decisions made in the United States by the parent company of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.
Labrie's lawyer, Guy Poupart, argued his client had a limited role in the tragedy. He also played up the testimony of several witnesses who described him as competent and reliable and someone they trusted.
As well, he noted that a good portion of the Crown's case did not involve Labrie.
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