A Yellowknife journalist was found not guilty of obstruction in a local courtroom Friday afternoon.
John McFadden, a journalist with Northern News Services, was arrested last summer while taking photographs of four police officers searching a parked van outside the Elks Club downtown.
The decision was delivered by Judge Garth Malakoe Friday. McFadden, a veteran reporter with 30 years of experience in the industry, wept away tears as he left the courtroom.
“I think the judge’s decision speaks for itself,” McFadden told reporters afterwards. “I feel strongly that he made the right decision.
“I don’t think that the police officers or the Crown thought that they were doing this trivially. They felt that I had obstructed them and I felt strongly that I had not.
“I’ve been covering the police for 30 years and I think I do it well.”
RCMP officers ‘evasive if not obstinate’ during testimonies
McFadden’s trial – which began in June and wrapped up last month – revolved around competing descriptions of his behaviour on the night of the altercation.
Shortly after midnight on Jul. 5, 2015, McFadden emerged from the Black Knight Pub for a cigarette when he noticed four officers searching a parked van.
The veteran journalist quickly left the scene to get his camera so that he could photograph the officers as they conducted their search.
McFadden was arrested for obstruction shortly after returning to the site of the investigation.
At the time, police felt he was interfering with their investigation by yelling and swearing at them while intoxicated, trying to incite a crowd of people and physically getting in the way of their investigation.
Police also claimed he stuck his camera through the van’s open side door while the search was ongoing.
A series of photographs McFadden took that night formed a central piece of evidence used by both the prosecution and the defence.
But during his trial, the three officers who testified against him provided conflicting accounts of both his actions and behaviour during the night of the altercation.
Judge Malakoe said his confidence in some of their accounts was diminished because they were inconsistent and at times – exaggerated.
For instance, while all three officers acknowledged there was alcohol on McFadden’s breath, one of them said he was slurring his words and stumbling while the others said that wasn’t the case.
Meanwhile, McFadden and his close friend Sarah Heaton testified in his defence. On Friday, Malakoe said he had no reason to discredit either of their testimonies given their consistency.
Both claimed McFadden was not intoxicated on the night of the incident – having only consumed a beer, a Caesar cocktail and potentially a second beer over a span of three hours at the pub – and that he wasn’t inciting a crowd of people in the area.
McFadden admitted to being frustrated rather than angry on the night of the altercation, saying he was only trying to his job.
‘I don’t have an axe to grind with the RCMP’
McFadden expressed relief after Friday’s decision, adding that he’s ready to put the whole ordeal behind him.
The veteran reporter has had a rocky relationship with police in recent months after he was barred from an RCMP press conference last year for a ‘perceived bias’ in his writing.
McFadden also claims he was roughed up by a sheriff at the Yellowknife courthouse three years ago and has since applied to have a video that allegedly shows the altercation released.
On Friday, he told reporters he’s ready to move on.
“I don’t have an axe to grind with the RCMP, I never did in the first place. I do believe in freedom of the press but at the same time, any person, any citizen should be able to do what I did that night.
“If you’re standing on a public sidewalk and you’re not impeding police from doing their duty, we have to do that. It’s not citizen journalism, it’s citizens making sure that police are acting within the law and properly.”
McFadden says he’ll be speaking with his senior editors to see if he can resume covering crime stories in the NWT capital.