Alex Willness has been found guilty of manslaughter in the death of an off-duty Abbotsford police officer.
Justice Lindsay Lyster announced her verdict Tuesday in Nelson, nearly three years after Willness hit Allan Young on the head with his skateboard during a confrontation on July 16, 2020, in downtown Nelson. Young died five days later.
In Willness’ trial, which took place in Nelson in March and April of this year, there was no debate in the B.C. Supreme Courtroom about whether or not Willness hit Young.
But the circumstances surrounding the act, and how to interpret a video of the incident, were argued differently by Crown and defence, the latter of whom said Willness was acting in self defence.
Lyster did not accept the self-defence argument.
Based on evidence from the witnesses on the patio at Cantina del Centro, across Baker Street from which the incident took place, and on a surveillance video from the restaurant, Lyster ruled that Willness was “the author of this incident” by instigating a violent encounter that led to Young’s death.
Young, a Scottish immigrant who previously served in the British Royal Navy, was an officer with the Abbotsford Police Department at the time of his death. He joined the municipal force in 2004 after previously serving in the Toronto Police Service.
“This has been a very long journey for family, friends, and colleagues,” said the Abbotsford department in a statement. “Although this does not bring closure, it is comforting to know that the person responsible has been held accountable.”
Lyster said Willness, who was 26 at the time, and two other young men were very drunk and yelling as they walked up Baker Street. Willness, angry at other previous circumstances during the day, was yelling “I’m going to fuck you up” and “I’m going to kill you,” perhaps yelling at one of his companions.
As they passed the Cantina patio on the opposite side of the street, their yelling and swearing irritated the diners on the patio, who asked them to be quiet. A server threatened to call the police.
Young, 55, was one of those diners. He yelled at the young men to be quiet because he was trying to have dinner with his wife. When they did not stop, he climbed over the patio railing and walked, unsteadily because he was drunk, onto the street toward Willness.
During the trial the defence had argued that Young was the aggressor and that he had charged at Willness and threw a punch at him. Lyster said evidence showed that they walked toward each other, with Willness walking faster, and met in the middle of the street.
Lyster said testimony and the video shows Young raising his hand when he met Willness but it was not clear whether this was a punch, as the defence claimed, or some other sort of gesture.
While Young’s hand was raised, Willness struck Young in the torso with his skateboard, knocking him to the ground, where he hit his forehead on the pavement. Willness stepped back and then, while Young was in a crouching position trying to regain his feet, Willness stepped forward again and hit Young on the top of the head with his skateboard with a motion like swinging a bat or an axe, “with tremendous force while Young was in a very vulnerable position,” Lyster said.
Young fell backwards, hitting the back of his head on the pavement.
Willness had testified, and the defence had argued, that Willness reacted in this way because he felt threatened.
“He had no basis for this,” Lyster said. “He was shouting and threatening to kill someone. He moved onto the street faster than Young. There was nothing to indicate that he was afraid. He was looking for a fight.”
Lyster stated that it is not clear why Young raised his hand, but Willness could arguably have believed he needed to defend himself. But she said the second hit with the skateboard, while Young was crouched on the ground, and which caused Young’s death, had none of the elements of self defence.
“No one in Willness’ position could have believed Young was a threat,”she said.
In the trial, Willness testified in his own defence. He was not a credible witness, Lyster said. She called his testimony “patchy and disjointed” and listed many things he could not remember, including what the people were saying to him from the patio and how many times he swung his skateboard at Young. He had no recollection of being put in a police car and then kicking out the rear window.
“I approach Mr. Willness’ evidence with caution,” Lyster said.
The next step in the process will be a pre-sentence report prepared by a probation officer who will interview various people in Willness’ life to help the judge decide on a sentence. On Aug. 14, the court will convene to set a date for the presentation of the report.
With files from reporter Vikki Hopes.