Things seem to be looking up for the Crown prosecuting Aaron Webster’s accused killers.
While week one of the biggest gaybashing trial in recent Vancouver history may have gone to the defence lawyers, week two saw the Crown score some points of its own.
The trial began three weeks ago, when Ryan Cran, 22, and Danny Rao, 23, pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges in Webster’s killing. Webster was brutally beaten and left to die near Stanley Park’s gay cruising trails three years ago.
Police arrested Cran and Rao last October, after a lengthy investigation. They also arrested two youths who later pleaded guilty to their own manslaughter charges-and agreed to testify against Cran and Rao-in exchange for lighter sentences for themselves.
Initially, the youths seemed to perform well as the Crown’s star witnesses.
In week one, they clearly put Cran and Rao at the scene of the crime as active participants in Webster’s killing.
Though there were some discrepancies in the details of their accounts, they both said Cran drove them and Rao to Stanley Park that night; they both said Cran had weapons in the car; and they both said the group armed itself, then walked from Third to Second Beach to look for “peeping toms” to beat up.
They also said Cran and Rao helped chase Webster across the parking lot after he stepped out of the trails, naked. And they said Rao struck Webster repeatedly after a blow to his head sent him crashing to the ground by his car.
Under cross-examination, however, the youths’ testimony seemed to unravel. By the time they were done, Cran and Rao’s lawyers had attacked their credibility, highlighted their memory gaps and numerous guesses, and basically accused them of being self-serving liars on the stand.
In fact, the defence cast such a pall of doubt over the youths’ testimony, that many gay observers were left wringing their hands, wondering anxiously if they could believe anything the youths said at all.
Then Lance Rudek took the stand.
Rudek had gone to high school with Cran and later worked at a Burnaby pool hall Cran liked to frequent. It was there, at Q-Zone, that the post-killing conversations-and confessions-began, Rudek testified partway through week two.
In his most vivid recollection, Rudek told the court about the time Cran walked into the pool hall seeming a little intoxicated. “He placed his keys on the table, pulled up a chair to the front counter of the customer service area and used the words: ‘Lance, we lynched this guy. We lynched him.'”
Then he mentioned Stanley Park.
“‘Lance, we lynched a guy. We lynched a guy. We beat this guy up,'” Rudek repeated, bolstering the credibility of the convicted youths’ earlier testimony.
At the time, Rudek continued, he didn’t take Cran seriously. “I thought he was just trying to get a rise out of me.”
But the conversations continued. Cran was soon convinced that he was being monitored by police. Twice, he asked Rudek if any officers had approached him with questions. Twice, he urged Rudek to pretend he didn’t know him if the question came up.
When the police finally did approach Rudek, he agreed to become their agent and wear a recording device to try to catch Cran in another confession.
He got a chance a few months later, when Cran invited him over to admire his Jeep. He and Rao were installing low-glows under the vehicle, Rudek explained. They said they wanted to take the Jeep downtown to show it off. Rao then allegedly said something like, “We shouldn’t make another trip like the last one we made downtown.”
Cran got angry, Rudek told the court, because “Danny had spilled some information.” Then he allegedly told Rudek that “it was them” and named the Crown’s two star witnesses as accomplices.
“He just said that it was them-and that’s why his house is being monitored,” Rudek testified.
Cran’s lawyer, Kris Pechet, tried to downplay his client’s alleged confessions on cross-examination. But Rudek remained unshaken, a strong and credible-if somewhat arrogant-witness.
In the end, Pechet had to satisfy himself with pointing out that Webster did not literally get lynched (hung by a tree to die). He also pointed out that, despite Rudek’s repeated attempts to record a detailed confession of who did what the night of Webster’s killing, all he got were non-specific statements that it was Cran and his friends who did it, that “it was them.”
The Crown later pointed out in his closing arguments that it doesn’t matter who struck the killing blow or blows. According to Canada’s Criminal Code, people can be found guilty of manslaughter if they actively committed the offence and struck the blows, or encouraged others to strike the blows, or helped others strike the blows (say by knowingly driving the aggressors to the scene, providing them with weapons, helping them chase the victim down and cornering him at his car). As long as they were all active participants, they can all be convicted.
John Morgado, the Crown’s last witness, said Cran confessed to him, too.
He, too, worked at Q-Zone. He, too, told the court about a conversation he had there with Cran after Webster was killed.
“I asked him, ‘Was that you?'” Morgado testified. “And he said, ‘Yeah, it was us.'”
Cran then supplied a few details. He said they parked, walked to Second Beach, found a guy naked and started beating him, Morgado told the court.
He also told Morgado not to say anything if anyone came to Q-Zone looking for him or asking about any pool cues.
Morgado then explained to the court what had prompted him to ask Cran if he was involved in the first place: When he heard about Webster’s killing in Stanley Park, it “got me thinking about the times I’d been asked to go down there.”
It turns out, Cran had allegedly invited Morgado, on several earlier occasions, to join him and his friends for excursions to Stanley Park. Cran said they were going there to drink and party and look for peeping toms, Morgado recalled.
Did Cran say what he would do if he found any peeping toms? the Crown asked.
“Beat them up,” Morgado answered, in his slow and deliberate way.
Did you take him up on his offer? the Crown asked.
“Never. It’s just not something that I like to do.”
Cran’s lawyer objected to Morgado being allowed to tell the court about these alleged prior incidents, but the Crown urged Justice Mary Humphries to let him testify.
These allegations of prior acts show Cran “sought out” people he described as peeping toms “and assaulted them,” Greg Weber told the court.
These aren’t just allegations of unrelated, generic bad behaviour to cast the accused in an unfairly prejudicial light. Morgado’s allegations-coupled with youth number one’s similar allegations of prior peeping tom excursions with Cran-are “extremely relevant” because they are specifically similar to the case at hand, Weber argued.
The judge agreed to let Morgado testify.
Then the cross-examination began. Pechet first tried to shake Morgado’s recollection of Cran’s earlier invitations. It could’ve just been to drink and party at Stanley Park, couldn’t it? he asked. “Well, if it was just drinking and partying, I would have gone,” Morgado replied. “It was what he added that threw me off.”
Pechet did score some potential points when he asked Morgado where in Stanley Park Cran said he usually liked to go. Prospect Point, Morgado recalled. And who did he like to go with? Some friends from Surrey, Morgado replied, not knowing that the accused and the convicted youth are all from South Burnaby.
But Pechet couldn’t shake Morgado’s basic assertion that Cran not only confessed to him about Webster’s killing, but described in detail walking to Second Beach, finding a naked man and beating him up.
This was “a group endeavour to seek out peeping toms,” the Crown told the court in his closing arguments. “This was an extended and intended and planned attack on a person going under the general terminology of peeping tom-someone who is different.”
Together, Cran, Rao and the two convicted youths found Webster, chased him across the parking lot and surrounded him at his car, the Crown continued. Together, they targeted Webster and “corralled” him. Together, they controlled his movement and prevented any potential escape. Together, they beat him and ultimately killed him.
“The totality of the evidence points to the fact that the two accused are guilty of manslaughter.”
Remember, in order to be convicted of manslaughter, the court has to prove the accused intended only to assault their victim, not kill him, Weber reminded Justice Humphries. And it doesn’t matter who struck which blows, or even the killing blow-provided they were all active participants, actively striking, aiding or abetting (encouraging).
The evidence says Cran and Rao were active participants, he repeated. “They are perpetrators” and should be convicted of manslaughter.
Though Justice Humphries won’t release her decision until Dec 10, she may have dropped a few clues as to how she’s leaning during the defence lawyers’ closing arguments.
At one point she interrupted Rao’s lawyer, Jim Millar, to challenge him on his assertion that the group did not act together to “corral” Webster.
What’s wrong with using words like intimidation to describe a scene where several young men with weapons surround a naked, vulnerable man? she asked.
It’s just wrong, Millar replied.
What about common sense? the judge asked.
Cran and Rao were “nothing more than passive observers,” Millar insisted.
Justice Humphries seemed unconvinced.
Still, both Millar and Pechet reminded the judge that she can’t convict their clients unless she is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that they actively took part in the incident.
Though both conceded that their clients were present at Webster’s killing, they reiterated that they were nothing more than passive observers-despite any statements the two “unreliable” youths may have made to the contrary.
“The Crown cannot build its case” on major witnesses who lie, guess and assume, Pechet argued. The youths’ “evidence is so tainted as to be unreliable in its entirety.”
This case really comes down to the credibility of the two youths, he echoed. “Either you buy [their testimony] or you don’t.” If the court buys it, then Cran and Rao are either principal perpetrators or aiders or abettors in this offence, he conceded.
But if you don’t believe the youths-as he urged the court not to-then there is no evidence to convict Cran and Rao and they should be acquitted.
“Danny Rao is innocent. A wrongful conviction should be your greatest worry,” Millar warned the judge.
Despite the defence’s best efforts to cast doubt, their closing arguments left some gay courtroom observers feeling more hopeful about the strength of the Crown’s case.
The Crown was well prepared, precise and laid everything out clearly, said John McRae on a break. Pechet, in contrast, seemed scattered and repeated himself often.
But it’s still too soon to tell how the judge will rule, McRae noted.
It’s also too soon to tell if the Crown will push for stiffer hate crime sentencing in the event of a conviction. People convicted of offences such as manslaughter can get longer sentences if the Crown can prove they targetted their victim on the basis of bias or hatred, such as a hatred of gays.
But, so far, the Crown has not uttered the word gay once this whole trial. When asked why at the end of week one, Weber refused to comment.
The Crown’s gay omission prompted Greg Bazian to get a special T-shirt made for court. “I’m gay not a peeping tom,” it told the room in bold, black and red felt letters.
This case is not about “peeping toms,” Bazian insisted outside the courtroom. It’s about gay men being targeted for being gay.
Bazian is not the only member of the gay community who regularly attended Cran and Rao’s trial. At least five gay men sat in the gallery every day, diligently taking notes; some days as many as a dozen community members showed up to lend their support.
But those numbers weren’t enough for one regular observer. Where were all the community members who marched in protest after Webster’s death? Charlie Becker asked.
Becker, who hardly missed a day of the two-and-a-half week trial, said he was surprised and disappointed by the poor community turnout.
Don Davis, another regular, agreed. He said he still remembers where he was the moment he heard about Webster’s killing. And he still remembers Webster’s chosen mother asking where the gay community was at an earlier stage in the trial process.
“I felt very sad that she felt the world wasn’t interested in this tragedy,” he said. “And I told myself then that I would show my interest.”
Justice Humphries will rule on Cran and Rao’s guilt or innocence in BC Supreme Court on Dec 10 at 10 am.
BC Supreme Court.
Use the Nelson/Hornby entrance.
Things seem to be looking up for the Crown prosecuting Aaron Webster’s accused killers.