KINGSTON—Former Toronto police officer James Forcillo has been granted day parole after serving 21 months of his six-year sentence for the attempted murder of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim.
At a hearing Thursday morning, Forcillo, 36, told two Parole Board of Canada members he is haunted by his failure to follow his training as a police officer on the July 2013 night he shot and killed Yatim as the teen stood on an empty streetcar in downtown Toronto.
“My fear of being stabbed overwhelmed my training,” he said of his decision to fire again at Yatim as he lay shot, partially paralyzed and dying on the floor of the streetcar.
“There is absolutely zero justification to fire at someone lying flat on their back,” he said.
“I feel like I robbed Mr. Yatim of his life. He was 18. He was just starting his life. Had I handled that situation better… had I followed my training he’d still be here,” he said.
Forcillo said that he will not return to Toronto, and plans to move to a town where he has been accepted at a trade school. He said he hopes to eventually get an apartment with his fiancée, and they intend to marry early next year.
As per the parole board decision, he will live at a halfway house with overnight privileges for the next six months. He is also required to have psychological counselling and must not make contact, directly or indirectly, with Yatim’s family.
Yatim’s parents did not attend the hearing or submit any statements at the hearing, though victims are permitted to do so.
On Wednesday, their lawyers said they had not been informed the hearing was taking place.
Following the hearing, Ed Upenieks, who represents Yatim’s father Nabil, said the Yatim family would have attended and strongly opposed Forcillo’s release, had they known the hearing was happening.
Upenieks called the former officer’s comments at the hearing “self-serving,” calling his words “totally different” than at his trial and sentencing hearing, at which Upenieks said Forcillo did not express remorse.
According to the Parole Board of Canada, victims are only notified of an upcoming parole hearing if they register to receive that information. A spokesperson for the parole board said they could not say whether Yatim’s parents were registered.
After a brief deliberation following the Thursday-morning hearing, parole board member Bruce Malcolm granted Forcillo day parole, saying he had taken responsibility for his past actions, including lying in an affidavit for a bail variation that resulted in him pleading guilty to perjury.
Forcillo described prison as a “humbling experience” that helped him develop his empathy towards others, especially those he would have judged more harshly in the past.
He spent seven months in solitary confinement at the Toronto South Detention Centre and during an intake period at Joyceville medium-security prison, near Kingston. He has since been held at a minimum-security facility at Joyceville.
Though no psychological risk assessment of Forcillo was done, he was deemed by Correctional Services Canada to be a low risk to re-offend.
“I failed as a police officer in the worst way possible. I have taken the life of a vulnerable young man who needed my help,” Forcillo said at the end of the hearing. “I will respect his memory by being a better man, a better father and leading a better life.”
After a long and hard-fought trial, Forcillo was acquitted of second-degree murder by a jury but found guilty of attempted murder. The unusual and unprecedented verdict stemmed from a finding Forcillo fired two separate shots at Yatim less than a minute after the officer arrived at the scene — first three shots then, 5.5 seconds later, another six shots.
After the first three shots — including the one that eventually killed him through a wound to the heart — Yatim fell to the floor of the empty Dundas West streetcar and dropped the knife he was carrying. Forcillo fired six more times while Yatim lay partially paralyzed and with a severely injured right arm but still alive on the streetcar floor, grasping the knife to his chest. Eight of the nine shots hit Yatim.
Forcillo said “absolutely nothing” to the teen before the second volley, the Court of Appeal found in an April 2018 decision upholding the conviction for attempted murder and Forcillo’s six-year sentence.
“(Forcillo) knew that he was not entitled to kill Mr. Yatim in these circumstances, yet he proceeded to fire six additional rounds fixed with that lethal intent,” the decision stated.
The shooting, which was captured on video by bystanders as passengers fled the streetcar on the July 2013 night, prompted protests and a sweeping review of police use of force when responding to individuals in mental health crises, including the need for de-escalation training.
Forcillo, who had been a police officer for six years, was arrested three weeks after shooting Yatim and granted bail the same day. He remained on bail during the trial and was granted bail for his appeals.
He began serving his six-year sentence in November 2017 after he was arrested for violating bail conditions that required him to reside with his ex-wife and two daughters. He had applied to change his bail conditions to allow him to move in with a new girlfriend but had, in fact, already done so before his application.
Forcillo pleaded guilty to perjury for lying in a court affidavit.
He sought leave to appeal his conviction and sentence to the Supreme Court of Canada — a rarely granted opportunity — and was denied in December. He resigned from Toronto Police last September.
He will be eligible for full parole as of January 2020.
Last month, the Office of the Chief Coroner ordered an inquest into Yatim’s death. A date for that hearing has not yet been set.
With files from Wendy Gillis
Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati