Jul. 23, 2004. 01:00 AM

Chief Catney's comments spark a storm of criticism
Disregarded presumption of innocence, lawyers say

Description has `tried, branded and convicted' the accused



"Ladies and gentlemen, he is not just a murderer. This is the most despicable of criminals. This is a child murderer."


When Peel Region police Chief Noel Catney made that statement at yesterday's news conference announcing an arrest in the Cecilia Zhang case, some of the 50 police officers and dozens of reporters in attendance were taken aback. At the time, Catney, who was appearing live on television, held a photograph of 21-year-old Min Chen, a man who is accused of murder but has not been put on trial.


Several prominent members of the legal community feel the Peel police chief has crossed a line by disregarding Chen's presumption of innocence.


Later in his comments, Catney, 54, called the killing a "terrible, horrendous, devious and senseless crime."


"An innocent child ... has been taken from her parents, her family, her friends, and her loved ones and has been taken from society, and for that I believe the ultimate price must be paid and will be paid. We will keep our commitment to the family and to the community and we will prosecute this individual to the fullest extent of the law. Trust me," said Catney, who became chief of the force in 1997.


"I've never heard of anything like this before," said Toronto criminal lawyer Steven Skurka. "The problem is he's tried, branded and convicted the person charged before the trial has even started."


Skurka added: "At a minimum the chief of police has guaranteed there will be a challenge for cause during jury selection probing whether his comments impeded jurors' ability to be fair during the trial. ... There might even be a change of venue application."


The president of the Ontario Criminal Lawyers Association said comments like Catney's are harmful.


"Such partisan comments by people in positions of authority do a lot of damage by undermining the presumption of innocence which is a fundamental principle of our justice system and democracy," said Ralph Steinberg. "Police like to portray themselves as impartial and dispassionate investigators, but comments such as these reflect the rushing to conclusions that leads to tunnel vision."


Tunnel vision by investigators has resulted in many wrongful convictions, he said.


When this case reaches the trial stage, defence lawyers may have to take steps to combat the possibility jurors' minds may have been poisoned by the chief's comments, including bringing motions "to vet the prospective jury members to make sure they haven't been prejudiced," Steinberg said.


People "in positions of authority in the justice system," including police chiefs, "have to act responsibly," Steinberg added. Comments that suggest a conclusion at this early stage should be avoided, he said.


Brian Greenspan, a Toronto criminal lawyer, objects to the very notion of police holding news conferences that reveal details of investigations before a trial has been held.


"That, in itself, is inconsistent with the presumption of innocence," he said, adding that such news conferences give the impression that the investigation was successful, that the criminals have all been captured and that people are safe to go about their business. "We're taking that part of the process away from where the community's best served the courtroom," he said.


Catney, a 34-year veteran who is known for being emotional about the cases the force investigates, grew up in Toronto watching Eliot Ness and Joe Friday chase after bad guys on The Untouchables and Dragnet.


As a teenager he read up on policing with the hopes of becoming a homicide officer, a dream the married father of two later realized.


Prior to becoming chief, Catney was twice named "officer of the year" and has received several awards including an Ontario Medal of Bravery and a commendation from the solicitor general for fighting organized crime in the province.