Inquest jury rules Charles Qirngnirq’s death a homicide

Jury agrees with coroner’s counsel burden of proof for suicide was too high

An inquest into the shooting death of Charles Qirngnirq, 21, who died at the Gjoa Haven airport in December 2016, ended in a verdict determining the death was a homicide. Recommendations from the jury included equipping police vehicles in Nunavut with specialized gear to contend with low light conditions. (File photo)

By Madalyn Howitt

A jury has returned a verdict that the 2016 shooting death of Charles Qirngnirq by an RCMP officer in Gjoa Haven was a homicide.

“The jury has considered the evidence and makes the following determinations … Manner of death: homicide,” the jury foreman read in their final verdict Friday evening. It brought to an end a five-day coroner’s inquest at the hamlet’s community hall.

The purpose of the inquest into the death of 21-year-old Qirngnirq, who was fatally shot by a police officer at the Gjoa Haven airport, was not to determine guilt, but rather to consider the facts of the case and offer recommendations that could potentially prevent similar deaths in the future.

Lawyers for the coroner’s office and for Qirngnirq’s family asserted that his death was a homicide.

Counsel for the RCMP contended it was a suicide based on comments Qirngnirq made in the moment leading up to his death that could be inferred as suicidal. The Government of Nunavut took no position.

In his closing statement, the coroner’s counsel Sheldon Toner stressed to the jury that the burden of proof to determine that Qirngnirq’s death was a suicide was high.

“The jury should take into account that suicide is not a natural act, and that the allegation of suicide is a serious one, with grave consequences. The evidence establishing the probability of suicide should be clear and cogent,” he said. Referring specifically to the comments that witnesses said they heard Qirngnirq uttering in the moments before he died, Toner asserted that the circumstances surrounding them did not warrant a verdict of death by suicide.

“The evidence does not make it clear those comments were even directed at the officers, or that he was even aware they were present. It’s just not clearly and cogently established to the point where you fit in for suicidal intent from those comments,” he explained.

“A reasonable inference could be that he was just raging at the world and unhappy with his situation. And the evidence of all the other witnesses from earlier in the day they last saw Charles is consistent that he was upset. But that doesn’t mean he was suicidal.”

The jury agreed with this assertion, and in its verdict offered six recommendations to the RCMP:

  • All officers should receive suicide prevention training to better respond to possible instances of people with suicidal thoughts.
  • All RCMP vehicles in Nunavut should have spotlights installed so officers can better see low light conditions.
  • All officers who stay in Nunavut should be required to receive specialized training in first aid.
  • RCMP vehicles should be equipped with specialized microphones to give officers improved communication with subjects.
  • Detachments and police vehicles in Nunavut should be equipped with binoculars to magnify subjects at distance and low light conditions.
  • RCMP vehicles in Nunavut should be equipped with first aid supplies.

The jury also made several recommendations towards the betterment of mental health resources in the territory, and improvements on resources to emergency medical and health resources.

All legal counsels accepted the jury’s recommendations.

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