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Alleged gunman in Halifax shooting can argue self-defence, judge rules

This Ruger .45-calibre, semi-automatic pistol was recovered by police after a shooting on Dresden Row in downtown Halifax in August 2019. The gun was entered into evidence Friday at the trial for two men charged with attempted murder.
This Ruger .45-calibre, semi-automatic pistol was recovered by police after a shooting on Dresden Row in downtown Halifax in August 2019. The gun was entered into evidence Friday at the trial for two men charged with attempted murder. - Steve Bruce

The judge has cleared the way for Devonte Denzel McNeil to argue self-defence at his trial for attempted murder and nine other offences from a shooting in downtown Halifax in August 2019.

McNeil, 27, and Jayree Vontaze Downey, 20, both of Dartmouth, are on trial in Halifax provincial court.

Downey faces nine charges, including attempted murder and being an accessory after the fact, in connection with a shooting on Dresden Row off Spring Garden Road on Aug. 9, 2019, at about 12:30 a.m.

The Crown alleges the shooting happened after a dispute between two groups of people inside Jamaica Vibes Restaurant.

McNeil is accused of exiting the bar at 12:27 a.m., taking a handgun out of his pocket and firing at Robert Chan, who was south of him on the other side of the street, until the clip was empty.

McNeil, Downey and a third man, Demarqus Shane Beals, 32, also of Dartmouth, took off running northbound on Dresden Row.

A few minutes later, a Halifax Regional Police sergeant who was responding to the shooting spotted the three men on the grounds of Royal Artillery Park as she turned her vehicle onto Sackville Street from Brunswick Street.

McNeil and Beals were arrested there but Downey ran away. He turned himself in at the request of police six days later.

A police K-9 unit was called to the park and located a Ruger .45-calibre, semi-automatic pistol under a tree, with an empty eight-cartridge clip next to it. The slide on the pistol was open.

Chan, who ran when the shooting started, showed up at hospital about 45 minutes later with a bullet wound to one of his buttocks. He refused to talk to police.

On Friday, Judge Gregory Lenehan agreed with defence lawyer Ian Hutchison that, based on video and other evidence presented by the Crown so far, there’s an “air of reality” to an argument that McNeil was acting in self-defence.

Hutchison pointed to evidence that Chan left the bar at about 12:10 a.m. and returned about 10 minutes later after changing clothes. Chan stood on the other side of the road as if he were waiting for someone, Hutchison said, and appeared to have something in his hand, which he raised as McNeil came out of the bar.

The object in Chan’s hand was visible as he ran away. Hutchison said it appeared to be black and T-shaped and may have been a gun.

When police applied for a warrant to search the car that Chan left in, they told a judge they were looking for evidence relating to the shooting by McNeil and also believed Chan had been in possession of a gun, contravening a firearms prohibition.

The search of the vehicle turned up a collapsible baton, a knife, a bullet and blood.

To bolster his application to argue his client acted in self-defence, Hutchison also tendered Chan’s criminal record, which includes convictions for violence.

Crown attorney Rick Woodburn said the defence had not met the test for an air of reality.

“He walks inside (the bar), walks out, and then he starts shooting with a gun he already had,” Woodburn said of McNeil.

“He was prepared to fire even before Mr. Chan’s hand moved.”

But the judge ruled McNeil should be allowed to at least mount a defence of self-defence.

“Whether or not it is made out, whether or not it can exonerate Mr. McNeil for his actions, is yet to be determined, because I haven’t heard all the evidence yet,” Lenehan said.

To find someone acted in self-defence, a judge or jury has to be satisfied they reasonably believed another person was using force against them, the offence they committed was for the purpose of defending themselves, and their actions were reasonable in the circumstances.

The judge’s ruling means the Crown must prove McNeil was not acting in self-defence.

The trial got underway Tuesday and was scheduled to wrap up Friday. The court heard evidence from six police officers Friday but the Crown still needs to call more officers.

Lawyers will return to court Jan. 22 to book two more days for the hearing.

Beals was also on trial this week, but the Crown offered no further evidence against him after he pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of possessing a folding lock knife for a dangerous purpose and was sentenced to time served. The judge found Beals not guilty of attempted murder and being an accessory after the fact.

McNeil was denied bail in provincial court in August 2019 and in Nova Scotia Supreme Court in June 2020. Downey remains free on bail.

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