Vancouver
8 min

Anxiety mounts in Webster trial

Defence chips away at youths' stories

ALLEGEDLY BROUGHT THE BATS. Ryan Cran (above), is on trial for the manslaughter of Aaron Webster. He pleaded not guilty in BC Supreme Court, Nov 15. The trial continues. Credit: John Kozachenko

Six days into the biggest gaybashing trial in recent Vancouver history, the Crown’s case against its two accused killers may be withering under the defence’s onslaught.



The case centres around two young men charged with the 2001 killing of gay man Aaron Webster. Webster was viciously beaten and left to die near the gay cruising trails of Stanley Park, three years ago last week. He was 41 years old.



Police arrested Ryan Cran, 22, and Danny Rao, 23, last October after a lengthy investigation. They also arrested two youths, who have since pleaded guilty to manslaughter and are now serving two-year sentences in a youth detention centre plus a year house arrest each-the maximum sentence a youth can get for manslaughter.



Cran and Rao pleaded not guilty to their own manslaughter charges in BC Supreme Court, Nov 15.



Now it’s up to Justice Mary Humphries to determine whether they’re telling the truth-or if they did, in fact, actively participate in Webster’s fatal beating.



The Crown prosecutor says they participated.



In his opening statement, Greg Weber told the court that Cran drove Rao and the youths to Stanley Park on the night of the killing. He parked at Third Beach where they all got out and grabbed baseball bats and other weapons out of his trunk. Then they all walked along the seawall together to Second Beach “to see what they could find,” Weber said.



What they found was Webster. “Mr Webster caught their attention,” Weber said, because he wasn’t wearing any clothes.



Cran, Rao and the two youths (who cannot be named by court order) then allegedly chased Webster across the parking lot to his car, striking him along the way. When they reached his car, one of his assailants struck him in the head. Webster fell to the ground. At least some of his assailants kept striking him before they all retreated to their own car and drove away.



This wasn’t the first time Cran and the two youths had attacked people in Stanley Park, the Crown pointed out. The court will hear testimony from the first youth that he, Cran and the other youth had gone to Second Beach on previous occasions to wait for “peeping toms” to approach their car so they could drive them off with their fists.



On Nov 17, 2001, they returned to the park to look for more “peeping toms,” Weber told the court-only this time, they brought weapons with them (and Rao).



That was Weber’s introduction on day one of the trial. He clearly placed Cran and Rao on the scene as active participants, alleging they walked with the youths to Second Beach, hid with them in the bushes and chased Webster across the parking lot to his car while the group rained blows down upon him.



***

By day four of the trial, however, some of the gay and lesbian observers in the gallery were getting nervous.



By then they had heard testimony from the police offices who arrived on the scene and the doctor who later performed the autopsy-and documented at least a dozen injuries, including a broken jaw and rib, and severe bruising around Webster’s neck, head, thighs and butt.



They had also heard from two witnesses who caught a glimpse of the attack in their headlights as they drove by, forever imprinting in their minds the image of a man striking another man in the head with a rounded weapon and sending him crashing to the ground, as other men stood nearby.



And they had heard testimony from Webster’s friend, Tim Chisholm, who happened to find his severely bruised body convulsing in the park as he drove by.



While each of these witnesses pieced together another part of the picture, none of them clearly identified Cran or Rao as active participants in the attack. According to the Criminal Code of Canada, one can be convicted of manslaughter if one actively committed the offence, or encouraged its commission, or aided in its commission (say by knowingly driving the aggressors to the scene, handing out weapons and chasing the victim down). Simply being present, however, as a passive spectator, is not enough.



Though Chisholm told the court that he heard what sounded like a group of teenagers hollering and laughing, followed by several loud thuds and more laughter before he found Webster, he could not identify who was making all the noise.



And while the couple from the car was able to describe a scene involving several people in their headlights, they only saw one man strike Webster and they couldn’t remember if the other people in the background were doing anything more than watching, let alone holding any weapons.



***

Enter the first of the Crown’s two star witnesses, youth number one. Though his testimony did place Cran and Rao on the scene as active participants, it was weaker than expected, undermined by numerous memory gaps, potential credibility problems and the occasional conflicting statement. The defence had a field day.



Outside the courtroom, many of the gay and lesbian observers clumped together in small groups, anxiously assessing the damage. “I feel the defence lawyers have done a good job of making his testimony seem very blurry, moving all over the place so you’re not quite sure what’s solid,” Brad Teeter told Xtra West.



It didn’t start out that way.



When youth number one first took the stand Nov 18, he painted a clear enough picture of what happened that night, as he laid out his recollections for the Crown.



The night began at the 8 Rinks skating arena in Burnaby, the youth told the court. He and his friends went skating, then returned to youth number two’s house and drank a lot of alcohol. Then, somehow, a bunch of them decided to go to Stanley Park, he said, though he couldn’t remember any discussion leading to that decision. But “we all knew what we were going down there for,” he added.



When Rao’s lawyer objected, the youth clarified: “to fight these people we’d fought before.” He then described previous experiences accompanying Cran and youth number two to Second Beach and waiting in Cran’s jeep for “peeping toms” to approach, then jumping out of the car, chasing them and beating them up.



The night Webster died, Cran parked the car at Third Beach then opened the trunk and distributed baseball bats and other weapons to everyone present, the youth testified. Then they all walked to Second Beach “to find these people, these peeping tom people” to get in a fight. They climbed up the embankment and hid in the bushes.



Within moments, Webster stepped onto the roadway, smoking, wearing nothing but shoes and socks. “I was kind of stunned,” the youth told the court. “I didn’t expect something like that-a man walking around naked.



“Then somebody said, ‘get him.'”



And everyone started running after him.



Before long, the youth said, he caught up to Webster and struck him in the shoulder with his baseball bat. Webster turned around and told him, “That’s enough, guys.” But the chase continued.



When they reached Webster’s car, the youth said Webster circled around one way (with youth number two in hot pursuit), while he went around the other way. And the next thing he knew-“he was lying on the ground, face up.”



That’s when the youth said he struck him again. So, he alleged, did youth number two and Rao, repeatedly.



Then they all retreated and left the scene. The next morning they heard the headlines: “Gay man dies in Stanley Park-that sort of thing,” the youth told the court.



***

Cran’s lawyer, Kris Pechet, opened his cross-examination of the youth by asking him how drunk he was that night. These events occurred when “you were very, very drunk,” right? he asked. The youth agreed. In fact, Pechet continued, at one point you told the officers that it was all “a blur” and that you were seeing double? Again, the youth agreed.



Then Pechet tried to undermine the youth’s credibility by exposing a number of areas he seemed to be guessing about or couldn’t recall. He particularly tried to poke holes in the youth’s assertion that Cran had handed out the weapons at Third Beach. The youth eventually admitted that he could have been wrong on that point.



The next day, Rao’s lawyer, Jim Millar, took his turn cross-examining the youth. He, too, highlighted the number of times the youth seemed to be guessing. “You were prepared to point your finger and accuse someone when you didn’t know if it was true or not?” he asked the youth at one point. The youth insisted he was just trying to tell the truth.



But “you would lie to save your own skin” wouldn’t you? Millar challenged, referring to the youth’s agreement to testify against Rao and Cran in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself.



As the cross-examination continued, the gay and lesbian observers’ anxiety mounted.



It mounted even further on Nov 22, when the defence lawyers made youth number two look like a self-serving liar on the stand.



Again, it didn’t start out that way. Youth number two’s initial testimony for the Crown did not differ substantially from youth number one’s. He, too, told the court that Cran drove that night. And while there was some discrepancy between the youths’ accounts of how the group decided to go to Second Beach, both agreed they went in search of “peeping toms,” both attributed the search to Cran’s previous experience with such “toms,” and youth number two specifically fingered Cran as the instigator of the search on the night of Webster’s death. (“Ryan suggested we go see if that guy’s there,” he said.)



Both youth also testified that Cran and Rao joined them on the seawall walk to Second Beach, weapons in hand.



And both youth agreed that Cran and Rao hid with them in the bushes, jumped out with them when they saw Webster, and ran with them as they chased Webster to his car.



Though youth number one was sketchy on who hit Webster during the chase, he clearly alleged that Rao struck Webster once he was lying on the ground. Youth number two seconded that allegation and added that both Rao and Cran hit Webster during the chase, as well. (He also blamed youth number one for the blow that actually felled Webster.)



So what will the verdict be? That’s up to Justice Humphries to determine. But it’s worth noting that neither defence team seemed to shake the youths’ fundamental assertions from the stand that Cran and Rao were present and actively participated in the chase that led to Webster’s fatal beating.



The defence lawyers did, however, cast a lot of reasonable doubt on the truthfulness and accuracy of the youths’ stories overall-leaving many observers wondering anxiously if anything the youths said could be accepted as true.



And that isn’t the only thing they’re worried about. Many are also concerned about the Crown’s apparent failure to portray Webster’s killing as a gaybashing.



***

The word gay has only been uttered once so far in this whole trial, says John McRae-and that was by youth number one when he was referring to the media headlines he saw the next day. The Crown hasn’t mentioned the word gay at all.



“I’m totally disappointed” in the Crown, says McRae, who hasn’t missed a moment of testimony since the trial began.



McRae says he came to court expecting the case’s gaybashing nature to be “a major aspect of the trial.” But it isn’t, he says, sitting outside the courtroom.



The Crown didn’t even ask the two youths if they knew that area of Stanley Park was a gay cruising zone, he notes. “I would have asked outright if that was part of the purpose for going down there.”



The Crown has made no attempt to challenge the youths’ assertions that they were looking for “peeping toms,” McRae continues. Even though, according to the youths’ own descriptions of the incident, Webster wasn’t even “peeping” on them. He was naked, standing on the road away from them, having a smoke, McRae points out. “It suggests that they assumed he was a gay man and they attacked him.



“It’s just classic,” he says. “Drunken kids from the suburbs coming to beat up queers in Stanley Park. It’s just classic.”



But none of this has even been raised in court, he reiterates, frustrated. “I don’t understand why the Crown is not asking these questions.”



When asked why he hasn’t portrayed the killing as a gaybashing, the Crown brushes Xtra West off. He can’t comment on that now, he says, barely breaking stride on a courtroom break.



Granted, there’s no such thing as a gaybashing, per se, in the Criminal Code. If the Crown thinks an offence was committed because the accused hated gays, he’ll charge the accused with the offence itself (like manslaughter). Then, if the accused gets convicted, the Crown will ask for a longer sentence because the offence was motivated by hatred of gays.



Xtra West asked Weber if he plans to seek such hate crime sentencing in the event of a conviction in this case. “We’re in the middle of a trial,” he replies, walking briskly by. “I can’t go into these things right now.”



McRae isn’t satisfied. The gay community needs to keep an eye on how the justice system deals with gaybashings, he says.



Fellow gay observer Raymond Campeau agrees. It hurts to watch this trial, he says, “but something keeps making me come back. It would be easier to just let justice take its course. But Aaron can’t be here, so some of us have to be.”



The trial is scheduled to run until Dec 3, but will likely wrap up much sooner.