Sports Fields Not Law-Free Zones,
Judge Says In Convicting Rugby Player In Death
Thursday May 28, 2009Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press
An Ontario judge sent out a warning Thursday that the playing field is not a "criminal law-free zone" as he convicted an 18-year-old rugby player of manslaughter for a violent sucker-tackle that caused a rival's death.
Manny Castillo, 15, died from a head injury just days after he hit his head on the field during a high school rugby game in May 2007.
Justice Bruce Duncan ruled the convicted athlete had no exemption to use deadly force simply because he was participating in a sport known for its testosterone-fuelled aggression.
"The playing field is not a criminal law-free zone. The laws of the land apply in the same way as they do elsewhere," he told the court in handing down his verdict.
"The defendant intentionally applied force that was outside the rules of the game or any standard by which the game is played."
The Crown, in closing arguments, said the ball was nowhere near the Castillo when he was tackled and that the play was far down the field.
The now 18-year-old athlete, who also played top-rank hockey, "committed an assault, an unlawful act," Duncan said.
"That unlawful act caused death. The defendant is therefore guilty of manslaughter."
Court heard the assault came in the dying seconds of a rugby match on the Lorne Park Secondary School field in Mississauga, Ont.
The convicted teen had stood out for his aggressive actions throughout the game and for angrily arguing calls with the referee, who was one of 17 witnesses that gave different accounts of the fatal confrontation that inevitably killed Castillo.
The Crown successfully argued that the accused committed manslaughter when he lifted Castillo into the air, his feet facing upwards, and then drove him head first into the ground.
Referee Michael Lucas testified that he heard the convicted teen say he attempted to "piledrive (Castillo) hardest I could into ground," while another witness said he heard him say, "he was choking me so I picked him up and slammed him into the ground."
The defence had claimed their client acted in self-defence and told the judge that Castillo knew he was playing a physical sport and consented to having physical force exerted against him.
The accused testified in his defence and several other witnesses supported his side of the story, saying it appeared the teen was trying to break free from a headlock before knocking Castillo to the ground.
But Duncan said he believed - based on the variety of witness testimony - that the headlock was brief and the accused was able to free himself before deciding to attack the victim.
"What occurred thereafter was therefore, at its highest, retaliation and not self-defence," he ruled.
"Nothing suggests that the sort of conduct found here would be within accepted standards of play. Accordingly, there could be no implied consent (by Castillo)."
A number of family members and supporters for both families were in the packed court to hear the verdict, which stunned most observers.
Family of the accused began hanging their heads as Duncan neared the end of his verdict and burst into tears at the conclusion.
The convicted teen was consoled by his mother after the judge called a recess and slumped over dejectedly as he awaited news on his sentence.
The Crown requested a pre-sentencing report and the case will return to court July 6.
Crown lawyer John Raftery said he had not yet decided whether to seek an adult sentence for the teen and would make his decision based on the report, which will shed light on the teen's character and the circumstances that led to the on-field attack.
Castillo's father is expected to deliver a victim-impact statement.
Raftery applauded the judge's ruling and hoped it would act as a deterrent to over-aggressive play.
"I hope the way people play games is governed by this, that they will maybe have a second thought before giving vent to anger or revenge or retaliation," he said.
"The whole job of the Crown attorney is to avoid increased crime and hopefully there will be less violent offences."
Raftery also noted that the victim's family is concerned about the other teen's future.
"They're very concerned for the young man who was found guilty," he said.
"He's got a future in the same way their son had a future."
See video report footage here: http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1632714912?bctid=24579688001
Wow, this has got to be a tough verdict for everyone concerned.