The trial of the teenager accused of first-degree murder in the hit-and-run of Calgary Police officer Sargeant Andrew Harnett on New Year's Eve 2020, resumed on Tuesday at the Court of King’s Bench in Calgary. The individual, whose name is under publication ban because he was a minor at the time of the alleged offence, took the stand as the sole defence witness in the case.
The accused's defence counsel, Zachary Al-Khatib, played snippets of Sargeant Harnett's body camera footage from that evening for the court, asking the accused to explain what was happening inside the car when he was pulled over. Harnett had originally performed the traffic stop because the driver had failed to turn on his headlights. When Harnett asked for a valid driver's license, the driver admitted to him he did not have one, though he did give the officer his name and explained to the court that because the vehicle was unfamiliar to him, he was unaware that he was driving with no lights on. Al-Khatib asked the accused, who is now 19, to explain if he had been pulled over by the police before, and he said he had.
"The officer starts asking me for my phone number and then my address, and then eventually you'll see [from the footage] the officer told me to pop open my door because he wants to see a VIN number. I wasn't even aware there was a VIN number at the door," he said. "I never had my door open before I got pulled over. So, I was just I was kind of confused as to why you'd asked me for like my phone number as well."
By the time Sargeant Harnett was inspecting the VIN number on the vehicle, another police car had shown up at the scene, which the accused said made him more anxious. After police ran the identification of the passenger, Amir Abdulrahman, the co-accused, they received information there were warrants out for Abdulrahman. Al-Khatib asked the accused on the stand if there was anything illegal in the car at the time of the traffic stop, to which he adamantly denied.
Moments before the driver took off, the camera footage showed that the passenger door was open.
"I look quickly to my left, I look to my mirror and I observed the officer Sergeant Harnett had his hand on his gun and as soon as I saw that, honestly I took off. I was scared. My anxiety was through the roof at this time. I think we were stopped for 40 minutes," the accused told the court.
As the car accelerated, the accused said that Harnett was holding onto the door and had gotten ahold of the steering wheel.
"The vehicle was kind of leaning towards the left; towards the gas station. I was trying to make sure that the car didn't crash into the gas station because he was grabbing the wheel with one hand and then his hand on the door."
When Al-Khatib asked him why he didn't stop the car at that point, he told him that he was scared. At one point the vehicle went onto a snow berm and stopped for a short while.
"[Sargeant Harnett] grabs onto my hair and he starts punching me and I'm trying to block my face and I'm just getting punched. I'm trying to back away and as I back away, my right leg hits the accelerator because I'm trying to back away," he told the court. "I'm thinking straight up like I'm done. I'm gonna get dragged out of a vehicle I'm going get killed."
The body camera footage also registered audio that appears to record shouts of, "Go, go, go," though the teenager was not able to identify who was shouting.
"I heard go go go and then I heard gun, gun, gun, as well."
By the time the car had started to move it was headed towards the road, with camera footage showing the driver's door open and a hand pushing the door.
"The officer was trying to hold on to the wheel right and from there, I just don't remember much. It was so chaotic," the accused said, though when the defence asked him who opened the door, he told the court he didn't know.
"Whose hand is pushing the door?" Al-Khatib asked.
"It appears to be mine," the accused answered.
When Al-Khatib asked him what he thought would happen to the police officer, the accused answered that he wasn't thinking about it.
"Frankly. I was just thinking about myself," he answered.
He also told defence counsel he didn't know how the police officer fell off the driver's door and that he estimates he wasn't going faster than 70 kilometres/ hour.
"Honestly, I didn't think anything happened to him."
The accused told the court that it wasn't until late into the night when he had arrived home to his basement suite and saw his social media newsfeed that he realized a police officer had been killed.
"I read Calgary police [officer] passed away [and] that's when I lost it. I was tearing up, I was crying straight up. The fact that he passed away in the midst of a traffic stop; I was like 'is this me?'"
Earlier in his testimony to the court, he enumerated that during the pandemic he consumed social media daily and that there were multiple posts about the death of George Floyd in the United States. The teen also told the court that he identifies as an Arabic individual and said that discrimination figures largely in his worldview.
"Discrimination is a big thing. Discrimination happens with people of colour, so I look at it as people getting treated unfairly sometimes."
The accused also told the court that his upbringing was a tumultuous one, with an abusive father, which meant that he and his mother were forced to move from place to place when he was younger.
When Al-Khatib asked his client if he felt remorse for what he did, the accused said he did.
"The fact that I took off [and] impacted so many people impacted me. The family of other people impacted my family as well. Still, to this day, I still wake up in the middle of the night and I'm like, 'I'm in jail for this,'" he said. "I feel like people sometimes look at me as a monster. I'm not a monster."
The other individual who was named as the co-accused, Amir Abdulrahman who was the passenger at the of the incident pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in prison on January 28.
The three-day judge-alone trial of the driver began in February 2022. It is scheduled to continue Wednesday morning with Crown prosecutor Mike Ewenson scheduled to cross-examine the accused.