THUNDER BAY - After seven days of testimony, the Crown is asking the court to convict Jonathan Yellowhead on the charge of manslaughter based on the whole of the evidence, but his defense argues there are several key issues with the theories presented by the Crown and he should not be held responsible for the death of 17-year-old Braiden Jacob.
On Tuesday, Justice Bonnie Warkentin heard closing submissions from counsel on the seventh and final day of the manslaughter trial against Yellowhead for his alleged role in the death of Jacob.
Jacob, originally from Webequie First Nation, was in Thunder Bay to seek counselling and was first reported missing on Dec. 6, 2018. His body was later found on Dec. 9, 2018 in the Chapples Park area and a post-mortem examination determined he died as a result of hypothermia, blunt facial trauma, and alcohol intoxication.
Yellowhead was arrested on Dec. 14, 2018 in his home community of Eabametoong First Nation and initially charged with second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge of manslaughter.
Throughout the course of the trial, Crown attorney Heather Bracken called 14 witnesses to testify, and presented video surveillance evidence showing Yellowhead and Jacob together at an Arthur Street hotel in the early morning hours of Dec. 6, 2018, and again in the Limbrick Street area.
“The Crown submits that the constellation of circumstantial evidence, taken as a whole, will lead to the only reasonable conclusion to the guilt of Jonathan Yellowhead in the death of Braiden Jacob,” Bracken said in her closing submissions. “The court must view all the pieces together in relation to each other.”
The Crown’s case included a timeline that saw Yellowhead and Jacob both attending a party in a room at an Arthur Street hotel the night of Dec. 5 and into Dec. 6. A key card for a room at the same Arthur Street hotel registered to Yellowhead was found near Jacob’s body.
The two were then seen leaving the hotel together after a window was allegedly broken and observed by witnesses walking toward the Limbrick Street area.
Surveillance video in the Limbrick area captured Yellowhead and Jacob together at approximately 1:30 a.m. and leaving together with a third unidentified individual at approximately 1:40 a.m. Three hours later, Yellowhead is seen returning to the area alone.
A search of a Limbrick Street residence, where the owner testified Yellowhead stayed at the night of Dec. 6 and where his father testified to picking him up from, uncovered bloodlike straining in several areas, as well as on a backpack Yellowhead was seen carrying in the surveillance footage.
Jacob could not be excluded as the source of a DNA profile found from a swab of the blood on the door frame and the backpack.
“It is Yellowhead who has significant amounts of blood on him to transfer to the door,” Bracken said. “It is on his backpack.”
“When you look at all the piece of the puzzle, then they are pulled apart by the defense and argued to belong to a bigger picture, but when they are assembled, they fit together and fit together in a logical and cohesive way.”
Defense counsel Neil McCartney took several issues with the evidence presented by the Crown, including the timing of Jacob’s death, failures on the part of investigators to look into other persons of interest, and ongoing public criticism of the Thunder Bay Police Service at that time that he said resulted in pressure to lay a murder charge.
“Jonathan Yellowhead did not kill Braiden Jacob,” McCartney said at the start of his closing submission.“There are a number of problems with the Crown’s theory that he did. There are pieces of evidence that compel the conclusion that he did not and his guilt is not established beyond a reasonable doubt and he must be acquitted.”
McCartney argued that it is extremely difficult to accept that Jacob’s body remained in a high-traffic park for three days without being noticed and not covered in snow.
McCartney referred to scene photos where Jacob was found that showed numerous footprints in the area around and near his body.
“That prevents the Crown to contend that the body was in an unfrequented area. All those tracks establish conclusively that the area was not that at all,” he said. “I submit that evidence alone would make it very difficult to be satisfied with the conclusion that Braiden Jacob was beaten and left there on Dec. 6 and not discovered until Dec. 9.”
The exact cause of death can also not be determined, McCartney argued, saying alcohol intoxication could have been the primary reason Jacob was unable to seek shelter, not the injuries to his face, and thereby resulting in his succumbing to hypothermia.
“Any way you slice it, we do not have that really clear idea of what happened or any clear idea that Jonathan Yellowhead was involved,” he said. “We can’t be sure what was going on and who it involved. Unless we are sure that Mr. Yellowhead was committing a dangerous crime against Mr. Jacob, he cannot be convicted of manslaughter.”
McCartney also argued the blood-like staining found at the Limbrick Street residence does not prove that Yellowhead was involved in Jacob’s death, as his blood may have been transferred to Yellowhead after injuring himself when jumping a fence along the way.
Bracken pointed out, however, that video surveillance footage of the area does not appear to show Jacob with any injuries to his face the night of Dec. 6.
The reliability of several witnesses who testified to being at a party at an Arthur Street hotel room on Dec. 6 was also questioned by McCartney, including a witness who testified to hearing Yellowhead say he wanted to ‘beat up Braiden.’
The witness also testified to having consumed a large amount of alcohol, being close to blacking out, and having to be transported to the hospital that night.
McCartney argued the witness initially didn’t remember what was said at that party, but as a youth, wanted to get the testimony over as quickly as possible and agreed with the Crown after being questioned about what Yellowhead said.
“The best conclusion is that her first answer is the truth,” McCartney said. “She doesn’t know because she doesn’t remember.”
McCartney also argued that police failed to follow up on possible sightings of Jacob in the days between Dec. 6 and Dec. 9, including a potential sighting at the Canada Games Complex on Dec. 8 that could not be confirmed because police did not seek surveillance footage until Jan. 12, when it was no longer available.
“The court cannot have the level of confidence in this investigation to convict Mr. Yellowhead,” McCartney said.
As part of his defense, McCartney also filed an alternate suspect application, implying two other individuals may have been responsible for Jacob’s death.
Police initially identified the two other persons of interest, though Bracken pointed out testifying investigators said they tried to find an evidentiary link but were unable to do so.
Following the death of one of the persons of interest in 2019, a notebook was found that included the line: ‘Don’t push me. I’m a killer. I killed your boyfriend and I’m not sorry.’
A witness who testified to having been in an on-again, off-again relationship with the individual said she was not dating Jacob, but the relationship could have been headed in that direction, leaving the individual sad and jealous.
McCartney argued the line in the notebook was a confession by the individual to killing Jacob, though Bracken said in her submissions that there are numerous interpretations that can be made with respect to the contents of the notebook and would only be based on speculation.
McCartney argued further that police did not follow-up on any alternate suspects because they had ‘tunnel vision’ and wanted to seek a murder charge given the public pressure the police service was under in December 2018, which was just prior to the release of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director’s report on Dec. 12 that found systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police Service.
“The point I am making about this case and that controversy, is in December 2018, Thunder Bay Police were under the gun,” McCartney said.
“In a case like this at a time like that, it was not really an option to announce that this person had died of hypothermia, but hear us out, there are other factors and we must keep investigating. An announcement like that would not be thinkable in December 2018. Getting on with a murder charge would be seen as the right way to go.”
This is why, McCartney argued, the police did not attempt to explain how Jacob’s body could have been in Chapples Park for the three days without being found or account for the note left from the other person of interest.
“The reason an investigation wouldn’t turn its mind to any of that is because the investigation made up its mind that Jonathan Yellowhead killed him on Dec. 6,” he said. “Tunnel vision is exactly what you would be worried about when your police force is under pressure to get the job done fast.”
The matter has been adjourned until May 30, 2022 to schedule a date for Justice Warkentin’s decision.