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Shocking videos central to Ashley Smith probe

Shocking videos central to Ashley Smith probeAshley Smith is shown in an undated handout photo released in Toronto Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 at the inquest into her prison cell death. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

TORONTO - The videos were often jerky, of poor quality, yet what they showed was undeniably shocking: A hooded young woman being duct-taped to her airplane seat; guards in riot gear forcibly restraining and injecting her with powerful drugs; lying on a concrete floor on a segregation cell, blue in the face, taking her all too final gasps.

The images and sounds of those videos from prison surveillance cameras or taken by front-line guards stand out sharply among the hundreds of exhibits and thousands of hours of testimony at the inquest into the tragic death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith.

More than any other evidence presented before or during 11 months of hearings, video galvanized the inquest into the teen's death.

"It demonstrates in stark detail what happened to Ashley," said Breese Davies, lawyer for the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

"It shone a light on their conduct that you wouldn't get from the documents and from the testimony."

For years after Smith's death on Oct. 19, 2007, at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., Correctional Service Canada fought the release of the videos. For years, lawyers for Smith's family fought to have them made public.

A first attempt at the mandatory inquest collapsed in acrimony. The second seemed destined to follow the same path down a legal rabbit hole.

The videos, the family insisted, were both crucial to their arguments for a wide-ranging inquiry and to showing what Smith had endured during her time in federal custody.

Presiding coroner Dr. John Carlisle ordered the videos be screened.

Correctional Service Canada headed to the courts to fight the move, prompting charges of "coverup" and "bullying" from the family and others at the inquest.

"This case is really about Correctional Service Canada taking all conceivable steps so that certain videos don't make it to the public record," Smith family lawyer Julian Falconer said at the time.

On Oct. 31, 2012, after the courts refused to weigh in, snippets of the videos were screened under Carlisle's orders, shocking many in the country. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in, calling Corrections' handling of Smith unacceptable.

Correctional Service Canada finally threw in the towel.

On Jan. 14, 2013, a wide-scoped inquest with five jurors in place began hearing evidence in which the videos — hours of them — would play a central role.

Richard Macklin, lawyer for Ontario's child and youth advocate, said the videos proved "crucial."

"In the old days when there were inquests without videos, you'd get a thousand divergent stories and human nature being what it is, the stories would tend to be not sympathetic to the inmate and more sympathetic to the institution," Macklin said.

"Videos lay that bare in this case and, more importantly, it captured the attention of the country. We were able to reach high in government circles and get this thing on the rails based on the subject of those videos."

Despite the shocking nature of many of the images, they also helped provide a more nuanced picture of Smith's life behind bars and how guards had treated her.

For one thing, they showed just how difficult it could be trying to cope with her. They also showed the very real concern and affection many of them felt toward their mentally ill charge.

Above all, Davies said, the videos brought into sharp focus a largely hidden side of Smith: a witty, engaging, smiley teen who in times of serenity endeared herself to those around her.

"We saw her, we heard her and we got a little glimpse of her humanity that we might not otherwise have seen," Davies said.

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