Will Radiohead ever find justice in Toronto?

One of my favourite rock bands is Radiohead. I have always admired their willingness to experiment and their refusal to adhere to the music industry’s rules. I was fortunate enough to catch them in concert this past Friday, especially since I would have completely understood if the band never returned to Toronto again.

In 2011, Radiohead released their eighth studio album, The King of Limbs. It was their second effort after ending their relationship with EMI and taking complete control of their career. Unlike their previous album, 2007’s In Rainbows, The King of Limbs didn’t seem to generate any excitement outside Radiohead’s fan base. Nevertheless, a tour was scheduled, with a Toronto date set for June 16, 2012 at Downsview Park.

I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t pick up tickets. It’s likely I was watching my spending at the time. It’s possible I was less than blown away by The King of Limbs, although I think most bands would be thrilled to make an album that good. I had also seen them twice before. Their October 17, 2000 show at what used to be called the Air Canada Centre still stands as my favourite concert ever. But perhaps my problem was with the venue.

Two friends and I spent Canada Day at Downsview Park in 2011. Performing on stage first that day was Buck 65, followed by Hey Rosetta, followed by Broken Social Scene, then Weezer, and concluding with The Tragically Hip. Downsview Park proved easy enough to get to, but nightmarish to leave. There was no system in place to shuttle the thousands of concertgoers leaving simultaneously. Buses couldn’t get through the ocean of humans. A mile-long snake of cars slowly slithered out of the park. My friends and I marched for about 45 minutes to the closest subway station. It was an idiotic ending to a great concert. I decided that I wouldn’t attend another concert at Downsview Park until they put a system in place to facilitate a smoother exit after large events.

So I didn’t purchase tickets to the Radiohead show, but some of my friends did. When June 16 finally arrived I saw a flurry of posts in my Facebook newsfeed about the concert’s cancellation, with people trying to figure out why. Soon the word was out.

That afternoon, the construction of the temporary stage was behind schedule. Around 2:00pm, the band’s business manager took enough notice to snap a photo of the stage’s drooping scaffolding, but let it go thinking, “What do I know about engineering?” Two hours later, before the gates opened to the public, the roof of the stage collapsed, claiming the life of Scott Johnson, the 33-year-old drum technician, and injuring three other crew members. Radiohead’s drummer, Phil Selway, told the public, “We have all been shattered by the loss of Scott Johnson, our friend and colleague. He was a lovely man, always positive, supportive and funny; a highly skilled and valued member of our great road crew. We will miss him very much.” Radiohead went on to reschedule the remainder of their tour, and wouldn’t stage a concert for another 24 days. When they did, they projected Johnson’s picture as they played “Reckoner.”

I felt horrible that my beloved home city was the site of a tragedy afflicting one of my all-time favourite bands. There didn’t appear to be any excuses for the stage collapsing. The weather, including the wind, was pretty calm. Was it simply a matter of the company in charge of assembling the stage not knowing what they were doing, or not having the tools they needed?

The Ontario Ministry of Labour certainly seemed to think someone was at fault. After investigating the incident for 355 days, they laid 13 charges, including four against Live Nation Canada, four against Live Nation Ontario Concerts, four against Optex Staging Services Inc. and one against engineer Domenic Cugliari. Live Nation responded to the charges saying, “We absolutely maintain that Live Nation and our employees did everything possible to ensure the safety of anyone who was on or near the stage involved in the tragic death of Mr. Scott Johnson.”

Obviously, if that were true, the stage wouldn’t have collapsed. If all safety measures had been put in place, the stage wouldn’t have been able to collapse. There was only one justification for Live Nation’s statement: They had to deny all wrongdoing to have any chance of avoiding being found at fault and, consequently, paying out money. It was purely a self-preservationist move, with no consideration about doing the right thing.

With the charges laid, the next step was a trial. A full two years passed between those two steps. The trial was originally scheduled for June 2015, but it was delayed because Optex had no lawyer. When the trial actually started that November, Optex president Dale Martin actually represented himself. One would think that two years is more than enough time to retain a lawyer. I can’t understand why a court would grant more time to a defendant to retain a lawyer when they already had two years. This was just a sign of things to come.

All the defendants pleaded not guilty. Radiohead’s managers and crew presented evidence over 15 days that November. The court then ordered another 15 days throughout 2016, and then more time the following winter for the defence to present their case. The next time this case made it to court, the defence successfully persuaded Justice Shaun Nakatsuru to drop two of the charges against Live Nation and one charge against Optex, citing lack of evidence. Still, ten charges remained.

By this point, it’s important to note four years had passed since the incident and three years had passed since the charges were laid. Radiohead had released a new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, dedicated to the memory of Scott Johnson. Lead singer Thom Yorke told Rolling Stone that the band was going through such a tough time, including the death of producer Nigel Godrich’s father, that, “It was a miracle that the record got made at all.” Yet, it was completed faster than this trial.

Looking over the course of the trial, I actually feel Justice Nakatsuru was sincerely trying to work towards the end of the trial. Even after the Supreme Court of Canada set new deadlines for an accused’s right to be tried in a reasonable time frame, Nakatsuru rejected the defence’s arguments to drop all charges because of the unreasonable delays. But here is where the justice system itself became the problem.

First: It seems rather thoughtless of the Supreme Court of Canada to set new deadlines the way it did. Now provincial court cases would have to be resolved in 18 months. How is that supposed to work when this case took two years just to get to trial? These deadlines don’t take into account how over-burdened the justice system is, and just gives the defence a new tool to get charges thrown out.

Secondly, Nakatsuru was appointed to Ontario Superior Court in the spring of 2017, and since he no longer had jurisdiction over the case, he declared a mistrial. I would have thought Ontario’s judicial system would have some sort of mechanism in place to prevent mistrials in such instances. Couldn’t Nakatsuru have been allowed to see the case through before moving full-time to Superior Court? Apparently not. The earliest a new trial could wrap was May 2018, but instead of allowing that to take place, new presiding judge Ann Nelson ruled in favour of the defendants’ application to have the case dropped under the principle that any person charged with an offence has the right to be tried within a reasonable timeframe.

Radiohead responded in a joint statement saying, “This is an insult to the memory of Scott Johnson, his parents and our crew. It offers no consolation, closure or assurance that this kind of accident will not happen again.” The band has until September 2018 to appeal this ruling.

I feel everything in Radiohead’s statement is true, but there is something more troubling. I feel this case has exposed how broken Ontario’s judicial system is. Demands are being made of the system without determining if they can realistically be met. Mistrials get declared without any attempt to mitigate against them. Parties’ requests for delays are granted, no matter how unreasonable, and then those delays are used as grounds to get charges dropped. The sorry state of Ontario’s justice system would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.

Perhaps the problem isn’t exclusive to Ontario. Indeed, the dishevelled state of Canada’s justice system is on full display in the absolutely terrifying 2008 documentary Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. The movie centres on the 2001 murder of Andrew Bagby in Pennsylvania. The prime suspect is his girlfriend Shirley Turner, who has fled to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and is pregnant with his child. While her extradition is pending, Turner isn’t placed in custody. Her lawyers repeatedly find ways to prolong her extradition process based on legal technicalities. The documentary shows a number of mind-boggling judicial failures that set the stage for the most horrific, and easily avoidable, tragedy.

No one working in our justice system would have allowed things to deteriorate this much if they respected how important their jobs are. Truthfully, I feel that way about a lot of professions. In my view, these days, there is a pervasive lack of pride people put into their work. You can see it everywhere: from reality TV shows, to windows falling off condominium towers, to potholes, to Donald Drumpf’s presidency.

Radiohead played their first show in Toronto in a decade this past Thursday. During the second encore, Yorke spoke to the audience. “Six years ago, we wanted to do a show in Toronto. The stage collapsed, killing our colleague and friend. The people who should be held accountable are still not being held accountable in your city. The silence is fucking deafening.”

I wasn’t at the Thursday show, but I read all about it. Yorke requested a moment of silence in Johnson’s memory from the crowd, which numbered 20,000 strong. I was saddened to read how, as the crowd grew silent, someone (obviously thrilled to just be out of their house) was compelled to fill that silence with a “Woooo!” Since that’s the mating call of people with no sense of time or place, someone answered back “Woooo!” This prompted the uprising of the self-righteous with no sense of time or place, who responded with cries of “Shut up!” Soon Yorke, who only asked for a moment of silence, was presiding over a hockey arena of people alternately shouting “Woooo!” and “Shut up!” According to Ben Rayner of The Toronto Star, there was one guy who barked, “This is a rock show!” Yeah, since when did respect have any place in rock n roll? Perhaps that guy should be restricted to concerts featuring at least two gallons of peroxide, hairspray and music about cherry pies. Recognizing a lost cause when they saw one, the band then abandoned the moment of silence and lurched into “Karma Police.”

I showed up to see Radiohead the next night. Yorke did not ask for a moment of silence, nor did he make any mention of the Downsview Park tragedy. The concert was packed with so many moments that covered me in goosebumps. Their music has grown increasingly subtle and intricate, but the majesty and spell-binding nature is still there. After finishing off the final encore with the one-two punch of “Paranoid Android” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” Yorke bid us all goodnight with “Thank you, Toronto, for making us welcome again.”

I can only hope they found something positive in their brief return to my city. We should be just as angry as Radiohead, not because we’re Radiohead fans, but because this is our justice system. A man died, and our justice system didn’t hold those responsible for his safety accountable. There is every indication the justice system will do this again, especially with the new Ontario government more focussed on saving money than providing quality service. Our government bodies don’t just serve us. They serve everyone who visits us. Radiohead have made it clear that Ontario’s justice system is broken. We can respond by fixing it.