May. 15, 2007 - Issue #604: A River Runs Through It
Media criticized as bus beating charges dropped
All charges have been dropped against four Edmonton teens accused of beating a man to death on an Edmonton Transit bus, with defence attorneys, the prosecutor and the victim’s father all voicing their frustration with the way the story has been covered by local media outlets.
Early news reports claimed that four teenagers swarmed and attacked 35-year-old Stefan Conley for no reason while he rode the number 74 bus on Mar 2, 2006, proceeding to savagely kick, punch and stomp him to death. The sensationalistic stories (some commentators speculated that the beating was a kind of gang initiation) generated a storm of public reaction, and Conley’s friends circulated a petition demanding that the teens’ bail be revoked.
But a preliminary hearing held in December of 2006 heard witness testimony
that drastically contradicted the original reportage of the killing.
According to statements from other passengers on the bus, the then 16- and 17-year-old students of J Percy Page High School were talking loudly about heavy metal music, especially their fondness for the band Metallica. A heavily intoxicated Conley, whose blood alcohol level was revealed by an autopsy to be over twice the legal limit, interjected into the discussion and began to argue with the teens, yelling “You guys don't know metal. Metallica is nothing.”
One of the boys then made a vulgar gesture, undoing his belt and the top button of his pants as a sarcastic invitation for Conley to perform oral sex on him. This incited Conley to attack the teen, grabbing him by his jacket and calling him “a punk kid.” The other boys began to punch Conley in the face, beating him for about 10 seconds while yelling “Get off him!” The punching ceased when Conley let go of their friend. The group then exited the bus, apologizing to the bus driver for the commotion. No witnesses reported any kicking or stomping.
The hearing also allowed Edmonton Police Service Constable Maurice Brodeur to testify on behalf of the defence. The officer responded to a late-night noise complaint at Conley’s Old Strathcona walk-up apartment a week before the altercation on the bus. He was let in by a frantic, tire-iron wielding Conley, whom Brodeur described as “volatile” and “in a rage” because of the loud music coming from the apartment below. Brodeur said that the teenaged boys in the apartment—who were smoking marijuana and playing video games—told him that Conley had poked one of them sharply with the tire iron earlier in the evening. The officer also testified that he warned Conley that he would “have to be careful,” as under the circumstances the teens could have legally attacked Conley in self-defence.
After charges against the teens were officially dropped in court on Fri,
May 11, Chief Crown prosecutor Bart Rosborough was critical of media coverage
of the beating, noting that it had spurred a “vehement public
“The original reports suggested the youths had swarmed and ruthlessly beat the deceased after little provocation,” he said. “The evidence did not bear this out at all.”
Defence lawyers also cited exaggerated and inaccurate reportage as having complicated the case, jeopardizing their clients’ right to a fair trial.
“[The defendants] were at the centre of such a citywide hurricane,” said defence lawyer Laura Stevens. “It was a very frightening feeling for someone that age.”
Lawyers for the defendants found the initial news reports so grossly erroneous that they did not ask for a publication ban on the case—a highly unusual tactic in a preliminary hearing, where revelations of damaging evidence could influence potential jurors—as they were confident that the facts of the case would exonerate their clients if reported accurately.
“I think it was important that the public have the ability to see this case as it was reported, said defence attorney Peter Royal. “The weaknesses in the case were very apparent and they were publicized.”
Even Conley’s stepfather, who said he had hoped to see the case go to trial, was extremely critical of the news media’s handling of the case, accusing reporters of sensationalizing and exaggerating events. Steve Conley regrets having had his stepson’s remains cremated after speaking to local reporters from his home in Ontario before travelling to Edmonton for Conley’s funeral, who told him his stepson had been beaten beyond recognition.
“We made the decision that we would prefer to remember him the way we remembered him from the last time we saw him, as opposed to some bloody, brutalized mess,” he said, noting that the coroner’s report indicated that Conley sustained only minor cuts and bruises.
“It’s really changing my opinion of what I read in the media,” Conley’s stepfather told the Canadian Press. “Is anybody in the media going to stand up and say we reported a story without the facts?” V
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