Alex Willness, accused of manslaughter in the death of Abbotsford off-duty police officer Allan Young, took the stand on the 12th day of his trial on Thursday in Nelson.
Willness, 28, is charged with causing the death of Young after hitting him on the head with a skateboard in an incident on Baker Street on July 16, 2020. Young died in hospital five days later.
In presenting Willness as a witness, defence lawyer Jordan Watt told the court that his client would explain how Young had provoked the attack by taking a swing at Willness.
In the previous 11 days of the trial, Justice Lyndsay Lyster has heard from an array of prosecution witnesses: bystanders, police officers, first responders, and doctors, and viewed a surveillance video from Cantina del Centro, the restaurant in front of which the incident took place.
Under examination by Watt, Willness testified that during that summer he was homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches in Nelson and Castlegar and living on social assistance.
In those days, he said, “I was drinking whenever I could. I was an alcoholic,” adding that he had been an alcoholic since the age of 18 and had had problems with drugs including fentanyl.
Willness testified that he is now off alcohol and drugs, stating that he got clean starting in March 2021, when he was arrested for the death of Young. He spent three months in jail and then an extended period of time in a recovery facility.
On July 16, 2020, just before the incident with Young, Willness had spent time in Nelson Police Department cells because of drunkenness. After being released in the early evening, he was wandering the streets and alleys of Nelson with friends and drinking vodka. He testified he could not recall how much he had to drink, or who he was with.
Willness said that before the incident at Cantina del Centro, one of his drinking companions, he does not remember who, sprayed something at him that he thought could have been pepper spray.
He testified that he was angry about this and was determined to leave Nelson for Castlegar. He began walking west on Baker with several friends, yelling and swearing about being pepper sprayed.
Earlier in the trial, two police officers stated there was no pepper spray smell on Willness nor any other evidence of Willness having been pepper sprayed when they arrested him after the incident with Young.
As Willness and his friends walked west on the south side of Baker Street, he said people in the patio at Cantina del Centro were yelling at him. He could not remember what they were saying.
Willness testified that a man (Young) climbed over the patio railing and approached him, yelling at him. He said Young took a swing at him. Willness said he defended himself by fending Young off with his skateboard, then hit him with it, then left, walking west down Baker Street.
Watt asked Willness what was going through his mind when he hit Young.
“I don’t think anything really,” he said. “It happened so quick, so I don’t remember exactly what happened. I just remember parts of it.”
Willness told the court that he “kind of remembers” getting arrested and put in a police car. He does not remember kicking out the window, as observed by earlier witnesses.
His next memory, he said, is waking up in a police cell.
Asked by prosecutor Sarah Firestone if when walking west on Baker Street before the incident, he was yelling “I’m going to fuck you up” and “I’m going to kill you,” as was testified by some witnesses, Willness said he did not remember. He said he was not yelling at anyone in particular.
Firestone asked Willness if he remembers that they were yelling at him to be quiet and that they had “had enough.” Willness said he did not remember, and he did not remember that one of them told him they were calling the police.
Asked if he remembers that he started walking toward Young before Young left the patio to walk toward him, Willness said he said he did not remember this.
Firestone asked what stopped him from being quiet when the patio patrons asked him to. Willness responded that he did not know. Asked why he did not simply continue walking down Baker rather than engage with Young, he said he didn’t know, and that “I just reacted.”
Firestone said that on Cantina’s surveillance video Willness is shown hitting Young twice with his skateboard: once to knock him to the ground, and then hitting him on the head while he was crouched on the ground. Willness responded that he remembered hitting Young only once.
Firestone suggested when Young approached him, there was nothing stopping Willness from continuing down Baker Street.
“I wish I had walked away,” Willness replied, adding that he hit Young because he thought Young was attacking him.
Firestone suggested that Willness knocked Young down once with his skateboard, then stepped back, and then stepped forward to hit Young in the head with his skateboard while he was on the ground.
“You saw the (surveillance) video,” she said. “You watched it. You know you did not just hit him once.”
“It looked more like he kind of swung at me and I kind of blocked it,” he said, “and then I hit him once. It was just a reaction, I wanted him to stop attacking me,” Willness said.
Firestone asked how he could be so sure that Young swung at him in the first place, considering all the things he does not remember. Willness’ response was inaudible in the courtroom.
Witnesses have testified that after Willness left the scene, several members of the public chased him to the intersection of Baker and Ward Streets, tackled him, and held him down until the police arrived. At least one of them testified that Willness violently resisted them, swinging his skateboard at them.
In court, Willness said he did not remember this but only that “I remember getting beat up by a group of people.”
Asked if he remembers them telling him they were holding him until the police arrive, and to stop fighting, he said he did not.
Earlier witnesses have testified that someone on the street said he had killed a man and that Willness replied, “I hope he doesn’t die.”
Asked by Firestone if he remembers any of his conversations with the police following the incident, Willness said, “Not really. I was drinking a lot of the time and my life was chaotic. It’s hard to remember the details.”
The trial will resume on April 3, when the prosecution and the defence will present their closing arguments.