WINNIPEG - A former small-town police chief was acquitted Friday on charges he deliberately botched an investigation into a deadly car crash caused by another officer.
Harry Bakema, 62, wept and hugged supporters after the verdict was read out in court. The husband of the woman killed in the crash, however, said the ruling was a blow.
"Let's just say justice takes two steps backward today," Robert Taman said outside court.
"I think when we all look at everything that took place over the last 8 1/2 years, it's pretty clear."
Bakema was the police chief in East St. Paul, a bedroom community outside Winnipeg, when a compact car driven by Crystal Taman was stopped at a red light in the early hours of Feb. 25, 2005. Behind her came a pickup truck driven by Derek Harvey-Zenk, an off-duty Winnipeg officer who had been out partying with colleagues.
Despite a large warning sign and flashing lights that warn drivers of the upcoming intersection, Harvey-Zenk made no effort to stop and plowed into the back of Taman's car, killing her.
Bakema, who had worked with Harvey-Zenk in Winnipeg, was among the first officers on the scene and talked with Harvey-Zenk. Instead of testing him for impairment or asking whether he had consumed alcohol, Bakema walked Harvey-Zenk to another police vehicle and had him sit inside.
Because of a lack of evidence, impaired driving charges were dropped against Harvey-Zenk and he was sentenced to two years of house arrest for dangerous driving causing death.
A 2008 inquiry into how the accident was handled led to Bakema's arrest and the disbanding of the East St. Paul police service.
Witnesses, including some fellow officers, testified at both the inquiry and Bakema's trial that he had told them on the day of the accident that Harvey-Zenk had been drinking. But they had not written that down in their notes and their testimony sometimes differed from what they had told police soon after the crash.
Corrine Scott, a retired superintendent with the Winnipeg Police Service, testified Bakema seemed more worried about Harvey-Zenk than about Taman. She also told the trial Bakema had mentioned Harvey-Zenk smelled of liquor. But those details were not in notes Scott wrote at the time of the crash.
It was partly because of those inconsistencies that provincial court Judge Kelly Moar found Bakema not guilty.
"The Crown has not met the burden of proof," Moar said. "(The investigation) certainly lacked, but it does not mean Harry Bakema displayed any criminal intent."
Moar added that the four-member East St. Paul police force was simply too small to deal with the "chaotic" crash scene that involved one other vehicle and backed up traffic on a major route into Winnipeg.
"(Bakema) was not equipped and he was overwhelmed."
Bakema's lawyer, Hymie Weinstein, said the former police chief has suffered throughout the legal proceedings.
"There's been a dramatic impact on him as far as his health ... because he's had this hanging over his head for many, many years."
Robert Taman, meanwhile, called for tougher laws on suspected drunk drivers.
"You took somebody's life and you have the option of whether to blow into a breathalyzer? I think that's ridiculous."
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