Forcillo conviction stirs debate about 'trial by YouTube'

After Toronto Police Const. James Forcillo was found guilty Monday of attempted murder in the shooting death of teenager Sammy Yatim, the officer’s defence attorney called it a “trial by YouTube.

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Lawyer Peter Brauti lamented to reporters outside the courtroom that every potential juror had heard of the shooting before the trial began, and therefore had probably formed an opinion of Forcillo’s actions.

After all, a cellphone video showing the shooting was posted to YouTube hours after the knife-wielding teen was killed on a streetcar on July 27, 2013, and it was widely circulated by those outraged at the officer.

However, an expert in social media’s effect on policing who studied the Yatim shooting for a book said it’s not clear that Forcillo was actually hurt by the video.

Prof. Chris Schneider told CTV News Channel that while the video did “frame how this entire case and circumstance was discussed by the news media and police,” the evidence doesn’t support Brauti’s view that the video caused most potential jurors to form negative opinions of Forcillo.

“There were numerous comments on YouTube in the early hours (of July 17, 2013) that said things like, “this was justified, Sammy Yatim had a knife, he was dangerous,” said Schneider, who teaches at Manitoba’s Brandon University.

Schneider did, however, think the video’s circulation had a negative effect in that it led to a “trial of public opinion.”

He said members of the public might have come to a conclusion of guilt based on the one-minute-long YouTube video, while jurors got to see other videos and additional pieces of evidence before deciding.

Ross McClean, a former Toronto Police officer, also thought the video’s release on YouTube may have helped Forcillo avoid a worse fate -- a murder or manslaughter conviction -- even though “it had everything to do with charges being laid.”

“He was cleared on those first charges,” McClean told CTV News Channel. “So I don’t think that (video) necessarily prejudiced (jurors).”


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