Sherbrooke, QC —A judge urged jurors at the Lac-Megantic trial to try once more to reach unanimous verdicts after they told him Tuesday they had come to an impasse on their sixth day of deliberations.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Gaetan Dumas told the 12 jurors that failing to reach verdicts for the three accused would not reflect badly on them, provided they “made an honest effort.”
But he nonetheless exhorted them to try again, and the eight men and four women will enter Day 7 of deliberations Wednesday.
“The law gives me the power to dissolve the jury if it appears that holding you longer would be useless,” Dumas told jurors. “This power can’t be used lightly or prematurely.
“Will you please try once again to reach a verdict? This is a time for each of you to reflect further on the evidence and to see how, listening to each other carefully and reasoning together, you can come to an agreement.”
The jurors are deliberating the fate of Tom Harding, Richard Labrie and Jean Demaitre. The three were charged with criminal negligence causing the 2013 tragedy that killed 47 people when a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the small town.
After Tuesday’s lunch break, Dumas convened the prosecution and the defence teams back into the courtroom and read a letter from the jury.
“We are at an impasse,” Dumas said, referring to the letter. “What happens if we can’t arrive at a unanimous decision?”
The day before, jurors sent Dumas their first letter, asking for a dictionary and for further clarification on judicial concepts such as “reasonable doubt” and a “reasonable person.”
The dictionary request was turned down.
All three accused can be found guilty of criminal negligence causing the death of 47 people, while jurors have the option of convicting Harding on one of two other charges: dangerous operation of railway equipment or dangerous operation of railway equipment causing death.
Harding was the train’s engineer, Labrie the traffic controller and Demaitre the manager of train operations.
The three men each pleaded not guilty.
Charles Shearson, one of Harding’s attorneys and the only lawyer who regularly speaks to reporters, said it is common for jurors to struggle to agree.
“It’s not rare that juries come to an impasse,” he told reporters shortly after Dumas sent jurors back to deliberate.
“The reading of an exhortation, asking them to come to a unanimous verdict while not capitulating on their convictions in their appreciation of the evidence is something common and standard.”
Before Dumas asked jurors to try again, he suggested to the legal teams that if the jury came back a second time without reaching unanimous verdicts on all three accused, he would ask the 12 if they could at least come to an agreement on one or two of the accused.
None of the three men presented a defence at the trial, but lawyers for each told the jury, in turn, the Crown had failed to meet its burden of proof.
The prosecution mounted a case that the three were each criminally negligent in their own way for failing to ensure the train was safe before the wee hours of July 6, 2013.
That’s when the locomotive and its cargo of crude oil from the United States rolled away and derailed in Lac-Megantic, exploding and then killing the 47 people as well as destroying part of the downtown core.
The Crown argued that Harding’s role was significant because he didn’t apply a sufficient number of brakes after parking the oil-laden convoy for the night in nearby Nantes.
That left the locomotive, which weighed more than 10,000 tonnes, resting precariously on a slope 10 kilometres away from downtown Lac-Megantic.
Harding applied only half the required level of brakes and didn’t test them to ensure they worked properly before leaving for the night.
Shearson countered that the rail disaster was an accident resulting from a perfect storm of unforeseeable events.
He said Harding admitted to not conducting a proper brake test and failing to apply a sufficient number of handbrakes, which would have prevented the train from moving after its engine was shut off.
He suggested that evidence presented during the trial demonstrated the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway didn’t require its employees to perform brake tests perfectly in line with the federal regulations.
“We can’t hold people criminally responsible for not being perfect,” Shearson told the court.
And Harding could not have foreseen the locomotive catching fire after he left for the night, the lawyer added. Firefighters extinguished a blaze at the lead locomotive shortly before the tragedy and cut the engine, which meant the air brakes were not functioning.
The prosecution also blamed Labrie and Demaitre, arguing their responsibilities included taking the necessary steps to avoid injuries and loss of life the night before the derailment.
Lawyers for the Crown claimed neither man deemed it necessary to check with Harding to see how many handbrakes had been applied and whether tests had been conducted.
Demaitre’s lawyer, Gaetan Bourassa, argued his client had no say in safety-related decisions made in the United States by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic’s parent company.
Labrie’s lawyer, Guy Poupart, argued his client had a limited role in the tragedy. He also played up the testimony of several witnesses who described him as competent, reliable and someone they trusted.