Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has long been known as pro-police and a politician supporting the “tough on crime” approach to dealing with law-breakers.
Yet, not so long ago, the then-city councillor Ford was the only person willing to come to court and testify in support of a teenager who along with an accomplice, used a sawed-off shotgun to rob a Toronto taxi driver.
Frequently, those convicted of gun crimes in Toronto have little community or family support in court by the time they are about to be sentenced. Character witnesses are rare and it is virtually unheard of for an elected politician to ask a judge for leniency for someone guilty of a serious offence.
Ford, who had coached B.Y. (The Lawyers Weekly is identifying him by his initials) in high school football, knew him as a “respectful” player and model teammate — not as the person convicted of an armed robbery committed while out on bail.
The appearance as a character witness, which has never been previously reported, took place in January, 2007, in a suburban Toronto courthouse.
Ford was called by the defence to testify at the sentencing hearing. Several months earlier, the then-18-year-old man flagged down a taxi in the west end of the city. He pulled out the shotgun from his clothing and demanded money.
The accomplice escaped and B.Y. was apprehended soon after. He eventually pleaded guilty to robbery with a firearm.
Justice Paul Robertson noted that the defendant had an unstable upbringing, little employment history and “minimal” family support.
Ford explained that he agreed to appear after being contacted by his former player, whom he had coached for three years.
“He did call me last week, not asking me to come here, not asking me for a letter, just asking me when he gets out of jail, could I get him a tryout with a football team,” testified Ford, according to a court transcript of the proceeding. “I sort of have a soft spot in my heart for him,” he added.
Ford described him as an “excellent” football player: “At 14 years old, playing against 18 and 19 year olds, which he did, he held his own.”
The court heard that, while the accused had not missed a football practice in three years, he was expelled from high school for failing to attend classes. Ford also took steps to assist the young man at this time. “I talked to the vice-principal and then I talked to the principal and they did not want him to just come and waste time…[to] just go to school to play football,” said Ford, “And I said: ‘Well that is what keeps the kids in school sometimes…’ ”
Upon questioning by the judge, Ford agreed that he knew little about B.Y. beyond his skills on the gridiron.
In the end, the character evidence did not appear to sway the judge, who imposed the five-year sentence requested by the Crown, as well as a lifetime weapons prohibition.
The defence lawyer in the case was unavailable for comment. The Mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment from The Lawyers Weekly.
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