BURLINGTON, ONTARIO — The truck driver who ran over and killed an Ontario animal rights activist pleaded guilty to careless driving causing death on Monday, a case the Crown lawyer said stood the "very reasonable" possibility of acquittal had it gone to trial.
The death of 65-year-old activist Regan Russell while protesting outside a pig slaughterhouse west of Toronto in June 2020 prompted international vigils and became a flashpoint for an animal rights community protesting a controversial provincial law passed days before she was killed.
The legislation hiked fines for trespassing at food-processing facilities and made it illegal to block trucks carrying farm animals.
The driver, Andrew Blake, pleaded guilty to the provincial offence of careless driving causing death during a video appearance before an Ontario court Monday.
He was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine and a received a 12-month probation period, during which he is only permitted to operate a vehicle for work, and to get to and from his job.
Bill Russell, who spoke outside the Burlington, Ont., courthouse, said delivering justice was beyond what the court could offer his daughter.
But he said the many people who have been inspired by her activism, who are "carrying her torch," do justice to her legacy.
The Crown and defence lawyer agreed Blake should have been aware Russell was standing near the driveway and eventual path of his semi-trailer when he turned into the Fearmans Pork plant on June 19, 2020.
But there was no evidence to suggest Blake intentionally hit Russell, according to an agreed statement of facts read at court Monday by Crown lawyer Michael Godinho.
The case was "as close as it gets to a momentary lapse in judgment or to reasonable diligence,'" he said. A finding of either of those at trial could have led to an acquittal.
"This case was far from a slam dunk," " Godinho said.
Godinho said the penalty should not be taken "as a measure of Ms. Russell's life." Nothing, he added, "will be able to compensate for the immense loss" her family has suffered.
Russell's loved ones told the court they continued to grieve for a woman whose dedication to justice extended beyond animal welfare.
Her elderly father's voice broke as spoke about the "sharp stab" he felt when dusting old photographs of Russell or hearing her voice on an answering machine. Her mother talked about how Russell, who was her parents' caregiver, would wash and set her hair just as she did for Russell when she was a child.
And her husband spoke about the "house of Reagan's dreams" the couple had recently bought, and what it was like to live there without Russell, who had helped him contend with the death of his own son six years before she was killed.
"The quiet reverberates off these walls. Grief has stalled me on this project. She is no longer here giving me the reason to go to work on what was to be our final home," said her husband Mark Powell, reading from a prepared statement.
"I am quite lost without her."
Demonstrators with Toronto Pig Save stood outside the courthouse Monday morning, holding banners and posters with Russell's face and name.
The court saw footage of the fatal crash on the morning of June 19, 2020, taken from security footage from the meat-processing plant owned by Sofina Foods. Blake was driving a tractor-trailer filled with pigs when his semi-truck was met by a crowd of demonstrators outside the Burlington, Ont., slaughterhouse.
He called police for help and remained stopped at a traffic light intersection for more than four minutes as demonstrators blocked the plant's driveway and gave water to the pigs, the agreed statement of facts read. Blake started to make the turn across the lane of traffic and into the plant once the driveway was clear and the light was green, the statement of facts read.
As the truck enters the intersection, Russell steps into the driveway, the agreed fact statement further read. Her body is dragged several feet before the truck comes to a stop. There was evidence, the Crown lawyer Godinho said, Blake had to continually readjust his view as he made the wide turn through a lane of traffic and into the driveway.
Blake spoke before the court Monday only to acknowledge the guilty plea and the penalty against him.
His lawyer told the court they were prepared to defend the case, but Blake, who previously had a clean driving record, made the decision to enter a plea and to "bring closure to this matter" for all those involved.
"There's not a day that goes by that he does not wish he had not gone to work that day and that Ms. Russell was still with us," said lawyer Cody Cornale.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2023.
Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press