David and Collet Stephan are charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel who died in March 2012. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

‘Some may perceive racism:’ Experts complain about Alberta judge’s comments

Queen’s Bench Justice Terry Clackson made the comments in the Lethbridge trial of David and Collet Stephan

Dozens of medical and legal experts have filed a complaint with the Canadian Judicial Council against an Alberta judge, alleging he made comments that could be perceived as racist about a medical examiner from Nigeria.

Queen’s Bench Justice Terry Clackson made the comments in the Lethbridge trial of David and Collet Stephan. Last week, Clackson found the parents not guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life in the death of their 19-month-old son Ezekiel in 2012.

The couple testified they thought their son had croup and used herbal remedies to treat him. They called for an ambulance when he stopped breathing, but he later died in hospital.

A letter dated Thursday signed by 42 doctors and lawyers from across the country asks the judicial council to investigate Clackson’s comments about Dr. Bamidele Adeagbo.

“In reading Justice Clackson’s reasons, he makes a number of ad hominem attacks on Dr. Adeagbo which lack a judicial mien, and in which some may perceive racism,” the letter says.

“In particular, Justice Clackson harshly mocked Dr. Adeagbo’s manner of speech and accented English, and thereby inappropriately implicated his national or ethnic origin as a person of African roots.”

The judicial council confirmed in an email statement to The Canadian Press on Friday morning that it has received a complaint against Clackson.

“(The) council takes seriously all allegations of misconduct against judges,” said the statement.

“Over 80 per cent of all complaints are reviewed within three months. In this matter, the review of the complaint may take additional time since the Crown Prosecution Service has indicated it is considering an appeal of the court’s decision.”

In his written decision in the trial, Clackson took issue with Adeagbo’s inability to communicate with the court.

“His ability to articulate his thoughts in an understandable fashion was severely compromised by: his garbled enunciation; his failure to use appropriate endings for plurals and past tenses; his failure to use the appropriate definite and indefinite articles; his repeated emphasis of the wrong syllables; dropping his Hs; mispronouncing his vowels; and the speed of his responses,” Clackson wrote.

The judge, without explanation, also called out Adeagbo for “body language and physical antics … not the behaviours usually associated with a rational, impartial professional imparting opinion evidence.”

Adeagbo testified during the trial that Ezekiel died of bacterial meningitis. But Clackson sided with a forensic pathologist called by the defence, Dr. Anny Sauveageau, who said the boy’s death was caused by a lack of oxygen.

The letter points out that Sauveageau is Quebecois.

“It is difficult to avoid the inference that Justice Clackson in his written reasons treated a witness with a French Canadian accent more favourable than a witness with an African accent,” the letter says. “Every person appearing before a court of law deserves to be treated with respect.”

Darryl Ruether, executive legal counsel for Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench, said the court is aware of the complaint against Clackson, who will continue to sit on the bench while it is investigated. He provided no further comment.

University of Calgary bioethicist Juliet Guichon was one of the experts who helped write the letter. She said Clackson’s words were shocking.

“I’ve never seen a judgment like this, because a medical professional whose duty it is to do the job he’s testifying about, ordinarily is given the benefit of the doubt with respect to demeanour and style of communication,” she told The Canadian Press.

Guichon said she hopes that Clackson can provide an explanation.

“It’s not for me to say what his intent was, but these paragraphs are inconsistent with a judicial demeanour that treats all that come before him equally.”

An Alberta Justice Department spokesman said he could’t comment on the complaint. “That said, we of course believe that all Albertans deserve to be treated with dignity,” said Dan Laville.

He added that no decision has been made on whether the Crown will appeal Clackson’s verdict.

The trial was the second for the Stephans. A jury convicted the couple in 2016 but the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial.

Adeagbo also testified during the first trial.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2019.

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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