Someone rushes into the room and fires a gun at the prof., or stabs at him with a knife. The attacker flees into the corridor.
Given our era of global terrorism and school shootings, Evidence Law profs wouldn’t stage this “crime” in class these days. Up to maybe a couple of decades ago, the idea was to impress law students with how unreliable eyewitnesses can be: everybody has a different narrative, disparate and sometimes wildly inaccurate. And if witnesses get to talking to one another, they can reinforce misconceptions, or cause each other to experience what nobody actually experienced.
I was reminded of this just yesterday (from when I write), melodramatically, as I sat in the waiting room of my ophthalmologist’s office in Yorkville. It was about three in the afternoon on a warm, sunny day, and my eyes stung with dilation drops. The large room was full. I was squinting at Maclean’s, trying to discern how Justin Trudeau is feckless as a feminist, when I heard three loud pops. After ten or fifteen seconds, there were three more loud pops. Looking up from her cellphone, one of the other waitroomers said, “A gun?” We all had wooden half-smiles on our faces. Then a woman we couldn’t see screamed. The cellphone lady left her seat, looking worried now, to see what was happening.
I’ve had to revise these events even as I describe them, never mind that they occurred just a few hours ago. Because of intervening circumstances – talking with eyewitnesses and other “earwitnesses,” hearing and watching broadcast news, reading the newspaper – I thought at first I remembered wrongly: that, in fact, the second volley of shots came after the scream. This doubt arose because the office receptionist had seen a plainclothes policeman approach a car and fire at the shooter. It was she who had screamed, although some of the waitroomers had thought the scream came from the street.
Once the receptionist had told me she saw the officer shoot the shooter, I had imagined that the second volley came from the police officer’s gun. News reports revealed later that both volleys likely were the shooter’s: he fired three times at criminal defence lawyer Randal Barrs, who had just exited his Yorkville office. Hit in the leg (police later said), Barrs crawled back toward the building, when the shooter fired several more rounds.* So, yes, your honour, I’m ninety-something percent sure the scream came after the second volley, as the police approached the gunman in his car.
Soon after the scream, anyway, I imagined we were safe, because I heard the roar of a car, and I assumed the shooter had fled.
Wrong again. True enough, the shooter was by then in a car, just outside my doctor’s building, where he had fled after the first volley. But the roaring vehicle I heard must have been the plainclothes officers using their unmarked cars to box him in. You perhaps saw the resulting configuration of vehicles on the evening news.
But of course, that is conclusory after the fact, without corroboration. What else was notable to this long-toothed legal academic and former barrister is that, with the first three shots, I went into denial, in a split second. Although I’ve lived in Toronto for 43 years and the last couple of decades here have been like inhabiting serial episodes of “Gunsmoke” (yes, it really is a disgrace, all of us at the Bochner Eye Clinic agreed), and although I started my legal career with criminal law, my first thought was, Gun. Then: Nah, not in Yorkville in broad daylight. Must be construction. But my body was thrumming, my breathing shallow with the effort of such wishful thinking. At least a couple of other people in the waiting room felt the same, it turned out, and had the same impression of rationalizing: “Nah. Can’t be. Could be?”
With the second volley we all lost our grip on denial. We began feeling something like mild hilarity, looking at each other with deadened half-smiles, shrugging, creating scenarios, having them altered by what we were told by others who had seen some of the street activity, giggling in disbelief and shock, then reminding each other that, the more we learned, the less amusing it was. We stopped waiting and started roaming, thinking out loud, peering outside. We were never amused, of course, but found ourselves dumbfounded by inexperience of such things in, as one woman reminded us, “Toronto the Good.” Smiling made us feel safe, betraying that reflexive denial. This stuff happens somewhere else, to someone else.
With the scream, it got serious. In fact, just after it, somebody’d had the presence of mind to holler, “Lock the door,” never mind that it was glass. Still, it took us at least five minutes (ignorant that by then the danger had passed) to decide we should probably move away from the windows. Denial, incredulity, shock, assisted by the fact that the window-shades were drawn against the sun. Out of several varieties of fear and wilful ignorance, we hadn’t raised them. Had the receptionist not seen most of what actually happened, our individual surmises were all we had to reckon with, themselves tweaked and twisted again and again as we talked about what we thought had happened, or not.
It was a good lesson, anyway, for all of us, never mind every police officer, barrister, judge, and expert witness. Be skeptical of the circumstantial. Even earwitness accounts can be coloured by our idiosyncratic experiences, physiology, and psychology.
*The good news is that both Mr. Barrs and the shooter survived. The news today is that Mr. Barrs is home from the hospital and recovering in good spirits at his home.
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