May 3, 2022

MCC Day 17 – Firearms Evidence and Reports

The Mass Casualty Proceedings were focused on firearms today, starting with a Foundational Document presentation on the gunman’s acquisition and possession of various firearms used during killing spree, followed by presentations of expert reports, and then finally a “technical witness” on the issue of forensic investigations.

The first presentation was from Commission lawyer, Amanda Byrd. She presented the Foundational Document on the firearms that the perpetrator possessed, and those that were used during the killing spree. In most cases, the firearms were able to be traced back to their sources, some of which were in the United States. Wortman did not have a license to possess a firearm, but was able to obtain guns illegally, and sometimes smuggle them across the US border from Maine.

Ms. Byrd then reviewed some of the complaints that had been made to the police about Wortman, dating back to 2010, 2011, and 2013. In 2010, Wortman’s father told police that his son had guns, and had threatened to go to New Brunswick and kill him (over a property ownership dispute). This complaint was given to the police both by his father, and also his uncle, who had also been made aware of the threat. No arrest was made at the time, and no search warrant was sought either. It is unclear from the information we now have whether such a warrant would have been granted. The threat was fresh, but Paul Wortman’s information about his son’s possession of guns was five years old, so likely not sufficient to justify a search warrant.

In 2011, there was a Criminal Intelligence Service of Nova Scotia report from Cpl. Densmore, who had received information while on duty that Wortman wanted to kill a police officer. This information was shared and discussed at the time with several neighboring police agencies, but was not actioned in terms of seeking a search warrant or making an arrest. The bulletin containing this information disappeared from the system a couple of years after it was posted.

Finally, in 2013, Wortman’s neighbor, Brenda Forbes made a complaint to the police that Ms. Banfield told her that she had been assaulted by Wortman, in the presence of several other men. None of the direct witnesses (including Ms. Banfield) would cooperate with police, and the matter was not pursued any further.

In her presentation this morning, Ms. Byrd noted that there was a dispute over the details of this complaint, but she did not elaborate on the nature of the dispute during her presentation. In reviewing the Foundational Document itself, it appears the dispute relates to the notes taken by the police officer (Cst. Troy Maxwell) who spoke with Ms. Forbes. Cst. Maxwell noted the incident as a “causing disturbance”, rather than a domestic violence complaint.

In fact, Ms. Forbes’ account is much more significant in scope than was presented this morning.  She and her husband were very credible witnesses, both military veterans, who moved to the area for peace and quiet, and were subsequently forced to move away from Nova Scotia after Ms. Forbes was continually harassed by Wortman after speaking to the police about this matter. Mr. Forbes also claims to have complained to the police about Wortman possessing firearms, and this appears not to have been actioned.

Viewed in isolation, these incidents or reports may not have made the radar of those involved in criminal intelligence, but viewed together, it would seem reasonable to conclude that they contain enough information to cause alarm.

After reviewing those incidents, Ms. Byrd reviewed each of the individuals who were killed, and outlined the evidence of what was known in each case from a firearms forensics perspective. Most of the deaths could be linked to a particular firearm. Notably, that of Corrie Ellison was not able to be linked to any firearm possessed by Wortman.

I noticed that Ms. Byrd became emotional when going through the forensics report with respect to the death of Kristen Beaton. Though these are reports about deaths, the details are somewhat technical and repetitive in nature, and Ms. Byrd’s voice and affect had been fairly flat until that point, making the onset of the emotional reaction all the more unexpected when it happened. I do not wish to be unkind to Ms. Byrd, but would note for young lawyers that it is important to control your emotional reactions at such times so as not to detract from your credibility as a professional.

After the first presentation, we received two presentations from Commission lawyer, Jennifer Cox. These were presentations of expert reports by Saint Mary’s professor, Blake Brown, and University of California Santa Clara Professors Tober and Bridges. I had expected that we would be hearing from the experts directly, potentially with the chance of them being subjected to follow questions or cross-examination from the counsel for the other participants. This was not to be, and Ms. Cox presented both reports herself.

Parker Dunham noted on Twitter that the gold standard of inquiries in Nova Scotia (and perhaps Canada) is the Marshall Inquiry, which had only three lawyers, one investigator, and one communications person. The Mass Casualty Commission on the other hand has at least 15 lawyers, eight investigators, and four communications staff. Perhaps the strategy of having various lawyers conduct presentations is a way of giving each some public speaking parts, but it is not the best way to present an expert report, particularly when it would be so easy to have the expert appear by video to make the presentation themselves (as the witness, Benjamin Sampson later appeared from Toronto).

Mr. Sampson was listed as a “technical witness” and lived up to his billing. He testified about the methods used by forensic labs to identify how bullets are linked back to particular firearms. This testimony connected back to some of what Ms. Byrd was presenting in the morning, and hearing it in isolation made me think it would have made sense to have Mr. Sampson analyse the individual details of the casualties and crime scenes while giving his evidence, rather than separating the two sides of the story.

Instead of making this natural connection, we had the disorienting experience of Ms. Byrd listing the forensic details of each deceased in the morning, and Mr. Sampson talking about how conclusions on the forensic evidence for each may have been reach in the afternoon. It almost seemed designed to make it all less interesting.

Tomorrow will see Al McCambridge speaking further about RCMP uniform disposal procedures, and then there will be participant submissions on the Access to Firearms evidence.