HALIFAX — A man who was the subject of a manhunt from Halifax to Ottawa over an alleged chemical threat against police walked free Wednesday after a judge said a reasonable person wouldn’t see menace in a rambling email he wrote that the Crown based its case on.
Christopher Phillips was arrested on Jan. 21 by heavily armed police who evacuated an Ottawa hotel while squads of officers also asked residents to leave their homes in two Nova Scotia neighbourhoods where he had stored chemicals.
He was found not guilty by a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge of uttering threats against police and possessing a dangerous weapon.
Phillips was interrogated in Ottawa by two RCMP officers who raised the shootings of soldiers in Ottawa and Quebec, telling him attitudes have changed since the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Judge David MacAdam said while he accepts police have to take precautions, he couldn’t accept Crown arguments there was evidence the U.S. citizen planned to do anything with the osmium tetroxide – a rare and potentially dangerous chemical – other than conduct experiments in his home lab.
Defence lawyer Mike Taylor criticized the decision to prosecute, saying after the verdict his client has suffered needlessly.
“It’s really concerning when a person can spend five months in jail for an offence that a reasonable person would conclude simply didn’t happen,” he said.
Outside court, Crown prosecutor Karen Quigley said the case was complex and she had simply presented the judge with the facts police had provided.
The incident started when Phillips’s wife, Gosia Phillips, contacted police on Jan. 19 and asked them to remove the chemical from a shed on her property out of concern her children might access it.
She later forwarded officers an email her husband had written to an American friend that muses about creating a box containing osmium tetroxide.
The text suggests a person could somehow poke a hole in a glass vial with the chemical as police entered their home, then put on a hazardous materials suit and hold their breath. The email also says “the box will not be designed to be actually used as weapon,” and describes the box as being screwed to a credenza.
MacAdam said previous decisions have established a legal test where a reasonable person would have to perceive the words, taken in their context, as being a threat.
In considering the test, the judge noted that senior investigators testified the email wasn’t a threat on its own, but could have been seen as a threat if Phillips was carrying the chemical while driving to Ottawa on Jan. 19 and happened to be stopped by police.
But MacAdam said there was no evidence that Phillips had any of the chemical with him, and by the time the case came to the prosecution they were aware of this.
As for the email itself, the judge said the two senior investigators didn’t see it as a threat on its own.
“Given these two sergeants were leading the investigation and considering that the email itself was not immediately taken as a threat, it’s difficult to see how a reasonable person would conclude differently,” he said.
Phillips has been in jail for more than five months after pleading not guilty to the charges.
Taylor said his client has suffered “a bit of hell” as a the result of his damaged reputation, his time in prison, and his separation from his children.
He said he and Phillips have discussed taking legal action his against the Crown, but no decision had been taken yet on that possibility.
Phillips, who was wearing the same blue hoodie he’s had since arriving in Halifax, left court without commenting after being picked up by a family friend.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press