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Michael Ferguson

Dead prisoner's family plans fight against ruling

Michael Ferguson

PINCHER CREEK, AB -- The family of a prisoner, Darren Varley, killed by a Mountie wants the Crown to appeal a ruling that saw the ex-cop avoid jail time, even if it means taking the case to Canada's highest court.

Connie Varley, the victim's sister-in-law, vowed Saturday to overturn the sentence, while supporters of one-time RCMP officer Mike Ferguson say an appeal will only deepen the divide in the town where it all began.

"If it takes going to the Supreme Court to get this decision reversed, we will," says Varley, the victim's sister-in-law. "We are not finished fighting."

Ferguson, convicted of manslaughter in the 1999 death of Darren Varley, won a rare constitutional exemption from a mandatory four-year prison term Friday.

The Crown prosecutor in the case has said more time is needed to reflect on whether to appeal the sentence. Ferguson's defence lawyer said he wouldn't be surprised by a legal challenge.

As news of the ruling sunk in Saturday, emotions were raw and volatile in Pincher Creek, where a jail cell struggle between Ferguson and Varley led to the truck driver's death. Standing over the grave of her brother-in-law, Connie Varley rubbed a photo of the 26-year-old that is etched into his tombstone. "I feel like we've let him down," she says, shivering in the wind at the cemetery on the edge of this southern Alberta town.

Darren Varley

Indeed, five years after the death of Darren Varley (right), feelings around the controversial case are as fresh as ever. The streets of Pincher Creek were quiet Saturday morning, but the talk inside the businesses that line the town's main drag was all about the ruling. Ferguson's friends, including many members of the local Baptist church he once attended, were elated by the sentence. "We're thrilled he doesn't have to go to jail," says Jane Schauerte, who lived next door to Ferguson.

Others, however, were deeply upset by the sentence and the fact that Ferguson is now back at his Kamloops, B.C., home after serving two months in jail. "It's a total miscarriage of justice," says George Hudson, who was having a coffee and a cigarette at a local restaurant.

Residents of Pincher Creek say they have had more than their fair share of dealing with the courts after watching Ferguson's three trials over five years. His first two trials on a charge of second degree murder ended in hung juries before he was convicted of manslaughter this fall. Several residents of Pincher Creek said the Varley case has changed their town, leaving locals suspicious of the police and the legal system.

For supporters of Ferguson, however, justice was served in the ruling.

Stephen Reynolds, pastor of First Baptist Church, called the decision "good" and "fair." "The legal system worked well in this case," he said.

During Friday's hearing, Justice Ged Hawco said he exempted Ferguson from jail time on the grounds that imprisoning him was cruel and unusual punishment, a Charter of Rights violation. The ruling is based on the fact that Ferguson had to spend 23 hours a day in his cell while in prison so that he was protected from the rest of the jail population, who might have killed him. Hawco also ruled Ferguson had to carry a firearm as part of his job and that Varley initiated the jail cell scuffle, grabbing the Mountie's gun.

Varley's family adamantly denies the young man touched the weapon, saying forensic evidence never proved he grabbed it in the fight. They add he knew nothing about guns.


Mountie sentenced to house arrest

LETHBRIDGE, AB -- A former RCMP officer convicted of killing a drunken prisoner who had grabbed his gun was sentenced yesterday to house arrest for two years less a day.

Mike Ferguson had been through two second-degree-murder trials that ended in hung juries before a third jury found him guilty of manslaughter in October. He voluntarily went to jail while he awaited his sentence.

But Mr. Justice Ged Hawco of Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench agreed with a constitutional challenge mounted by Mr. Ferguson's lawyer and ruled yesterday that he should serve no more time behind bars.

Defence lawyer Earl Wilson had argued that the Criminal Code provision for a minimum four-year sentence for manslaughter with a firearm should not apply to a police officer, who has to use a gun for his job.

Mr. Ferguson was also ordered to do 500 hours of community service and attend counselling. He was prohibited from using or possessing a firearm.

He was serving as a constable in the southern Alberta town of Pincher Creek when he arrested Darren Varley, a 26-year-old truck driver, for public drunkenness in October, 1999. He said he was acting in self-defence when he shot Mr. Varley in the head and the abdomen during a jail-cell struggle.

Mr. Ferguson's lawyer had argued that a jail term would amount to cruel and unusual punishment since Mr. Ferguson would have to do his time in protective custody, which amounts to solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

"He's a cop and he's a cop who killed a prisoner," Mr. Wilson said during sentencing arguments. "His life is always in danger. Some of these fellows don't need anything even remotely close before they are prepared to cause significant harm to other prisoners."

Mr. Wilson also noted that, as a police officer, Mr. Ferguson was duty-bound to carry a weapon as opposed to someone who picks up a gun to commit a crime.

Crown prosecutor Rick Saull countered that the shooting was deliberate and Mr. Ferguson deserved to be treated no differently than anyone else.

He had asked Judge Hawco for a sentence of more than six years in prison.

"It's not in the public interest to have that person sentenced to something significantly less than any one of you would be sentenced to had you done that," Mr. Saull said in sentencing arguments.

"This is not manslaughter through criminal negligence. This is manslaughter of a deliberate act. The unlawful act of manslaughter should attract higher penalties."

Mr. Varley's friends testified that a group of them ended up in hospital after a night of drinking and a scuffle.


RCMP officer guilty of manslaughter

LETHBRIDGE, AB - An Alberta RCMP officer whose two previous trials ended in hung juries was convicted yesterday of manslaughter for shooting a prisoner.

Constable Mike Ferguson had been charged with second-degree murder, but the Court of Queen's Bench jury rejected that.


Mountie's trial ends with hung jury

(CP ) A deafening silence filled the courtroom when a jury member told a judge Thursday that a verdict could not be reached on whether a veteran RCMP officer had murdered a prisoner in a jail cell struggle in a southwestern Alberta town.

Michael Ferguson

Sobs were then blurted out by court spectators who had sat through the trial of RCMP Constable Michael Ferguson (right) not once, but twice.

Both ended with hung juries when they could not come to a unanimous decision in the second-degree murder trial of the 19-year Mountie.

Constable Ferguson, 48, shot Darren John Varley on Oct. 3, 1999, in the head and in the stomach at the RCMP detachment in Pincher Creek. He had arrested Mr. Varley for public drunkenness and the 26-year-old truck driver died several hours later in a Calgary hospital.

After the six-man, six-woman jury filed out of court, Constable Ferguson held onto the prisoner's dock and hung his head while his wife cried into her sister's shoulder.

Connie Varley sobbed for her dead brother-in-law. Jack Varley said he couldn't believe that there was yet another hung jury 18 months after the last trial.

"It's devastating, it makes no sense at all," Mr. Varley said. "I wonder what it takes for a conviction to be made."

After three days of deliberations, Justice Paul Belzil thanked the jury, who took copious notes throughout the trial.

"On behalf of all participants in this trial, we appreciate this has been an extremely difficult and trying time for all of you," the judge said before dismissing the jury.

The Crown will decide next month whether to recharge Constable Ferguson or drop the charges.

During the trial, the Crown had argued that the Mountie fired his gun in a fit of rage, while Constable Michael Ferguson's lawyer said the officer acted in self-defence after the prisoner grabbed his pistol.

Court heard the pair had two scuffles within a half-hour - one in the foyer of the town's hospital and the other in the jail cell while Constable Ferguson was detaining Mr. Varley for being drunk in a public place.

The Mountie testified that an extremely drunk Mr. Varley grabbed his gun from its holster in the detachment's jail cell.

When the trial started three weeks ago, the judge told the jury that it must decide whether Constable Ferguson had pulled the trigger in self-defence.

Since his arrest Constable Ferguson has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the trial. A psychologist testified that he still suffers with post- traumatic stress from the shooting.

As part of his release conditions, Constable Ferguson was ordered to leave Pincher Creek. He moved to Kamloops, B.C., about six months after the shooting. Before his Pincher Creek posting, he worked with the RCMP in Lethbridge and Peace River.

It's extremely rare for a police officer to be charged with murder, and even more so for an officer to be convicted, particularly when the death happened in the line of duty.


Ferguson jury begins deliberations

LETHBRIDGE, AB - The fate of a veteran RCMP officer is in the hands of a jury that was told Tuesday it must decide whether Const. Michael Ferguson intended to kill a prisoner or acted in self-defence.

Ferguson is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Darren Varley, 26. The incident happened Oct. 3, 1999, while Varley was in the Pincher Creek detachment's holding cell, after having been arrested for being drunk in a public place.

Varley was shot twice, in the stomach and in the head.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Paul Belzil told the jury that shooting someone in the head is inherently dangerous, but that it is their job to determine what Ferguson's intent was.

If they agree that Ferguson meant to kill Varley, Belzil said, they should convict him of second-degree murder. If they have doubt about his intentions, they can find him guilty of manslaughter, the judge said.

Belzil said if the six women and six men on the jury believe Ferguson acted out of self-defence and was justified in killing Varley, then no crime was committed. The jury began its deliberations at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

In their closing arguments, the Crown and defence lawyer Earl Wilson painted different scenarios of what happened that night.

"He was in the agony of a struggle to save his own life," Wilson said, arguing for self defence. "You now hold his future. You now hold his fate."

Crown attorney Rick Saull argued that Ferguson, now 48, shot an intoxicated Varley out of rage.

"This was a shooting caused by anger and loss of control. I suggest the accused trapped Darren Varley and killed him," he said.

Ferguson, who was suspended after being charged, testified that Varley grabbed for his holstered gun. The officer, who had been with the force for 19 years, said Varley his vest over his head, which momentarily prevented Ferguson from seeing anything. He said Varley then managed to release his gun from the holster and while the two struggled with it, a shot rang out.

Police officers testifying for the Crown told the court that RCMP holsters are designed to prevent the gun being removed by anyone other than the officer. A defence police witness said it is possible for an officer to have his gun taken.

The Crown said there wasn't any evidence that Varley touched the officer's 9-mm pistol.

This is Ferguson's second trial on the charges. The first ended in November, 2001 with a hung jury, after 30 hours of deliberation.