Michael Bryant’s very bad year: his life on bail, how he got off, and his surprise comeback
Michael Bryant’s very bad year: his life on bail, how he got off, and his surprise comeback
Michael Bryant’s very bad year: his life on bail, how he got off, and his surprise comeback
A 28-second fight resulted in the death of a cyclist and almost ended the career of the cocky, ruthlessly ambitious Michael Bryant. Instead, his name has been cleared, and he’s set to return to politics. He swears he’s a changed man
On the last night of August 2009, Michael Bryant and his wife, Susan Abramovitch, celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary. As date nights go, it was cheap—a dinner of shawarma and iced tea on College Street and a dessert of baklava on the Danforth before heading home to midtown in their black Saab convertible with the top and windows down.
Driving west on Bloor, approaching Yonge, they noticed a cyclist tossing garbage and holding up traffic by doing figure eights on his bike. The cyclist, Darcy Allan Sheppard, was drunk and ranting. Bryant and Abramovitch passed Sheppard and kept driving. As they neared the pedestrian crossing between Bay and Avenue, where the street narrowed for construction, Sheppard pulled up in front of the Saab. Bryant hit the brakes, causing his car to stall. When he started it again, the car lurched forward and Sheppard shouted, possibly because the bumper nudged his back wheel. As Bryant later told police, it was at this point he had his first twinge of fear—a sense the situation could escalate beyond his control. In his rush to start the car and get out of there, he panicked, causing the vehicle to stall and surge forward again, this time hitting Sheppard hard enough that he toppled onto the hood. He wasn’t seriously injured, but he became enraged, throwing his bulky courier’s backpack at the car. When Bryant tried to drive away, Sheppard clung to the driver’s side door.
For Bryant, time seemed to speed up and slow down at once. Suddenly there was no car, no road, no traffic, pedestrians or buildings—only three people fighting for their lives, and one of them was about to lose. Sheppard reached inside the car and grabbed the wheel, and the car veered into the eastbound lanes. By a stroke of luck, the street was empty. According to forensic reports, Bryant never shifted out of first gear, his car staying around 34 kilometres an hour. But when the left side of Sheppard’s torso snagged on a fire hydrant in front of the Colonnade building, it was enough to send him flying to the ground. His head hit the pavement hard.
Bryant parked his car around the corner, at the Park Hyatt, and called 911 to say he’d been attacked. He was later arrested and taken to the lock-up at Toronto’s traffic services on Hanna Avenue. He offered to take a breathalyzer and was refused. For several hours, he had no contact with the outside world, nor any idea of the extent of Sheppard’s injuries. Early that morning, the police informed Bryant that Sheppard had died in hospital. Bryant would now face two charges: operation of a motor vehicle causing death and criminal negligence causing death. The latter, more serious, charge carries a sentence of up to 14 years in prison. Bryant knew this without having to ask. He’d helped write the case law on which the charge was based a decade and a half earlier while clerking at the Supreme Court.
Unable to sleep, he planned out his next moves. First, he knew he would have to quit his job as the head of Invest Toronto, the new city-run economic growth venture, a job given to him by Mayor David Miller. Second, he needed a suit. That way, if his kids, seven-year-old Sadie and five-year-old Louis, saw him on TV addressing the scrum that would be gathered outside the police station, they would think it was just Daddy doing his job at a press conference. If they saw him in a T-shirt, he figured they’d know something was wrong.
Bryant was released from custody at 2:30 the following afternoon. On the steps of the police station, dressed in a crisp grey suit and striped tie delivered to him by a law school buddy, he gave a brief statement expressing his condolences to the family of Darcy Allan Sheppard.
When he arrived at his and Abramovitch’s house near St. Clair and Avenue Road, the curtains were drawn, and there were camera crews camped out on his front lawn. He half expected to find Abramovitch in bed on Demerol—she’d been in the car, too, after all—but discovered her surrounded by friends, including Nikki Holland, Bryant’s long-time aide, who had arrived at the scene just minutes after the incident and had stayed with Abramovitch ever since.
Abramovitch is a partner at the Bay Street firm Gowlings and one of the most influential entertainment lawyers in the country. She’d spent the day working the phones, attacking the situation like the high-functioning, crisis-managing type-A personality she is. She’d already spoken to the city’s best criminal lawyers, reassured friends, consulted with associates, fended off the press, and talked to Jaime Watt, head of the PR firm Navigator—who, being a friend, offered up his services for free.
The media, short on facts, began to speculate in newsrooms across the city. Who was the unidentified woman in the convertible, and how long had Bryant been screwing her? Was she a brunette like Bryant’s wife or a brassy blonde stranger? What fancy Yorkville restaurant had they dined at and how much booze had they consumed? Reporters called the scandal Toronto’s Bonfire of the Vanities and Bryant’s Chappaquiddick; another example of the battle between cyclists and motorists; a class war and political drama of epic proportions. It was the story of the year! Journalists who had once eaten out of Bryant’s hand turned on him like a pack of pit bulls.
Navigator responded with a Twitter feed intended to counter the speculation, but the strategy backfired. Bryant was pilloried for being image conscious in the face of tragedy. What kind of person, reporters asked, is pragmatic enough to put on a suit when his world is imploding? A guilty person, that’s who!
For once, Bryant and Abramovitch didn’t pay much attention to the news. Concerned friends and neighbours brought food to the house—the owner of the ice cream store Dutch Dreams stopped by with four litres for the kids. But Bryant and Abramovitch couldn’t eat. Abramovitch went back to work the next day, knowing it was the only thing that would keep her sane. Bryant, on the other hand, tendered his resignation with Invest Toronto. When the mayor refused, pointing out he was innocent until proven guilty, Bryant laughed. “David,” he said, “your political antenna is stuck in your heart.” Miller had to concede he was right.
Michael Bryant has always known a public life. His paternal grandfather, James, served as an alderman for 15 years. His father, Ray, was mayor of Esquimalt, B.C., when Michael, the second of three children, was born on April 13, 1966. The year Michael ran for his first seat as an MPP, he hung two large formal portraits of both men for inspiration in his campaign office. Bryant likes to point out that he grew up in a family in which politicians were respected public servants. “Government was not something to be sneered at,” he once said, “but an agent for good.” It’s the kind of statement he’s known for: idealistic and slightly superior.
The former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, a law school friend of Ray Bryant, has known Michael his entire life. He remembers visiting the family when the children were young. “In the backyard, there was a pool with a slide,” Iacobucci recalls. “Michael was this blur of energy, up and down the slide and in and out of the pool all day.” He describes Bryant’s family as “salt-of-the-earth people, not particularly well connected, but with an interest in politics that is somewhat genetic.”
Bryant, determined to join the family business, took political science at UBC and law at Osgoode Hall, where he won the silver medal for earning the second highest marks in a class of 354. He then clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada under Beverley McLachlin, a few years before she became the court’s chief justice. The clerkship was a plum gig: only 27 students are selected each year from the best law schools in the country, and they actively participate in the processes of the court.
Julia Hanigsberg, who clerked alongside Bryant, remembers him as incredibly confident. “Everyone was smart, but Michael was different,” she says. “There was always a kind of lustre to him. At social events, people always congregated around him.”
Bryant’s crisis was called Toronto’s Bonfire of the Vanities, another example of the battle between cyclists and motorists, and a class war of epic proportions. It was the story of the year
As a clerk, Bryant developed a direct, point-first style of legal argument. He also met his future wife. He had already developed a crush on Abramovitch after seeing her picture in the law school magazine. Abramovitch, a sophisticated Montrealer, was initially wary of the chatty guy from Esquimalt who mangled her name in his small-town accent. Soon, among the stacks of legal texts and court documents, with the Ottawa blizzards swirling outside, they fell in love. “They were an intense couple,” says Hanigsberg, who also met her husband, the Osgoode Hall dean Lorne Sossin, during her clerkship. A long-standing joke between Hanigsberg and Bryant: “Ottawa isn’t romantic—it’s just cold.”
Bryant and Abramovitch remained together while he completed his masters in law at Harvard and spent a year lecturing at King’s College, University of London, and she practised law in Montreal, New York and Paris. According to friends, these separations only strengthened their bond. In 1995, they returned to Toronto and, two years later, married in a Jewish ceremony at Montreal’s Montefiore Club. Though Bryant didn’t convert, he did pledge to raise their children according to her faith.
Bryant laid the groundwork for a career in politics the old-fashioned way: by cultivating relationships with people in power. In Bryant’s case, these early connections paid off. When he was still a law student, Bryant sent David Peterson, then premier of Ontario, a letter complimenting him on his support of the Meech Lake Accord. Peterson did something he’d never done before: he invited the letter writer to come in and see him at his office. “He agreed with me,” says Peterson now, “which made him seem awfully smart—and I got a kick out of the kid.”
Bryant’s first job in law was in the commercial litigation department at McCarthy Tétrault. While he distinguished himself quickly as a commercial litigator, taking on a series of high-profile injunctions, he was willing to try anything. A fellow McCarthys lawyer, Will McDowell, remembers Bryant’s healthy ego. He’d trudge off to Old City Hall to try his hand in criminal court and often get trounced, says McDowell. But unlike many litigators, he was able to laugh at himself.
A few years later, after Peterson had left politics and returned to law, Bryant called him up a second time. By then he was on track for partnership at McCarthys, but Bay Street wasn’t his ultimate goal—it was a means to an end. He told Peterson he intended to run for office and he wanted his advice. Once again, Peterson was impressed. Bryant not only had credentials; he had game.
Peterson decided to do him a favour. “Dalton McGuinty was in opposition at the time, and he was putting together a team, so I phoned him up and said, ‘Here’s this bright young guy, and you should meet him,’ and then he did.” McGuinty was so wowed by Bryant he soon asked him to quit his job and run for the nomination in the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s. Bryant submitted his resignation, and a political star was born.
Bryant is a master of managing his public image. He had started courting the press while at McCarthys, forging relationships that might prove helpful down the road. One high-profile journalist once called up Bryant in the ’90s for a story he was working on about the Confederation Bridge in P.E.I. Bryant was representing a group of islanders, and the journalist needed a quick quote.
“I was interviewing lots of people and just wanted a little bit of him, but Bryant suggested lunch,” he recalls. “At the time I thought, Why is he bothering? But looking back, I now see that he was consciously building up his Rolodex of reporters, preparing for a career in the limelight.”
Bryant ran an inspired campaign in St. Paul’s—his energy attracted dozens of eager, optimistic volunteers—and managed to beat the seasoned incumbent, Isabel Bassett, by almost 5,000 votes. He had an insatiable appetite for fundraising and team building, his enthusiasm occasionally verging on manic. Former staffers talk about the addictive buzz of excitement that Bryant provided in an otherwise miserable election.
His youthful arrogance was an asset in opposition. This was Mike Harris’s second term, and the Liberals had their work cut out for them. Opposition operates best when a leader doesn’t have to do much of the dirty work himself, and in this case, McGuinty had three pedigreed attack dogs: Sandra Pupatello, George Smitherman and Bryant. “I remember watching Bryant just levitating off the bench he was so excited,” says one Queen’s Park reporter. Doing time in opposition is hardly glamorous. But those first four years of diligently paying his dues earned him credibility among party insiders. He excelled in his post as justice critic, using his pugilistic rhetorical style to pave the way to his dream job: the attorney general’s office.
In October 2003, the Liberals took power for the first time in 13 years, and Bryant, at age 37, became the youngest AG in the history of the province (and, as he liked to joke to his staff, the only one with an outstanding student loan). As an extra vote of confidence, McGuinty gave him control of two other portfolios: aboriginal affairs and democratic renewal.
Instead of toning down his showiness now that he was no longer in opposition, he kicked it up a notch. While most politicians stick to bland navy suits, Bryant added his own sartorial flourishes—a French cuff here, a Windsor knot there, a pair of flashy socks for budget day. “He was a snappy dresser,” says John Tory, then leader of the opposition Conservatives. “There’d be days when he’d come in vests and brightly coloured ties that would almost distract you from putting questions to him in the legislature.” Bryant didn’t just champion issues and seek to change public policy; he courted controversy. After teen drag racers imperiled lives on the city streets, he held a news conference in which he crushed two tricked-out Hondas with a front-end loader. Gerard Kennedy, who served alongside Bryant in the provincial legislature, says, “Part of politics is, can you get attention? Michael was good at that.”
His grandstanding only made Bryant more popular in the legal milieu. Ontario had been without a high-profile AG since Ian Scott. Hanigsberg, whom Bryant made his first chief of staff, describes an air of “incredible pent-up enthusiasm” surrounding his appointment. Compared to many of his predecessors, who often distanced themselves from the decisions of Crown prosecutors, hiding behind the skirts of government, Bryant was a law insider in government—a lawyer’s lawyer. “The Crown attorneys absolutely loved him,” recalls Will McDowell. “He’d walk up and down the halls of the provincial courts shaking hands with everyone he met.”
He was hands-on in a way that most AGs aren’t. He liked to appear tough on crime, and he was a staunch proponent of increased gun control. In 2007, Bryant’s staff quietly launched a Web site with no obvious link to the government under the slogan “No gun, no funeral.” When he was criticized by the media for not making the AG office’s connection to the initiative clear, he came clean with a trademark Bryant quip: “It’s bizarre that people who don’t want to register their guns think I should register my Web site as a dangerous weapon.”
After several people were mauled by pit bulls, Bryant launched a ban on the breed and relied on even more dramatic rhetoric to stir up public fear and support. “How many limbs are going to have to be severed before we do something about these dogs?” he asked, going on to describe an attack victim who was “practically eaten alive from the ankles up.” His conclusion was definitive: “We cannot have these animals walking the streets, the fields, or the family rooms of Ontario.” The ban was controversial, garnering criticism from animal rights groups and dog owners. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker that likened the persecution of pit bulls to racial profiling. Clayton Ruby challenged Bryant all the way to the Supreme Court (the court declined to consider the case). The ban may be both vague and unenforceable, but it did what it needed to for Michael Bryant’s career, solidifying his reputation as a crusader for public safety.
As his profile rose, so did tensions between the AG’s office and the premier’s. “His staff was not deferential. There was a lot of bashing of heads,” remembers one party insider. Bryant’s public role was fast becoming a threat to McGuinty—a leader who has turned folksy blandness into a political art form. While Bryant liked to freestyle, McGuinty stuck to the script. While Bryant sprang into action, McGuinty was circumspect.
He had hoped for a much cozier relationship with McGuinty, something like Ian Scott’s influential friendship with David Peterson. One of Bryant’s great talents was the ability to curry favour with kingmakers, but with McGuinty the chemistry wasn’t there. Bryant didn’t just want the leadership—he wanted to be groomed for it. McGuinty doesn’t work that way. Not with Bryant or, apparently, with anyone.
So Bryant sought out another political mentor: Frank McKenna. He showed up at Ramsden Park on a weekend morning to crash McKenna’s regular game of shinny on the community rink. Soon enough, they became friends, and Bryant would send McKenna the odd e-mail or drop into his office. “We talked about the need to sublimate some of that desire for the spotlight,” McKenna says, “but Michael is a hard dog to keep on the porch.” According to McKenna, Bryant was increasingly frustrated by his leader’s remoteness. “Michael is an emotional guy. He’s open, and he felt he couldn’t have intimate career conversations with Dalton. For example, he couldn’t sit down with him and say, ‘Premier, tell me, when are you going to leave?’ That’s a hard conversation for many leaders to have, and many refuse to have it because once you show the slightest weakness, the knives come out.”
“McGuinty once practised law in a strip mall. Bryant is this hyper-articulate kid from McCarthys, Harvard and the Supreme Court. It doesn’t take a genius to see where the acrimony came from”
Another former political colleague explains the rift this way: “On the one hand, there’s Dalton, who’s a pretty good guy but who’d practised law in a strip mall with his brother before going into politics. And then he’s got this hyper-articulate kid from McCarthys, Harvard and the Supreme Court yapping away at him in full paragraphs. It doesn’t take a genius to understand where much of the acrimony came from.”
After the 2007 election, McGuinty had had enough and, in a cabinet shuffle, stripped Bryant of his power, leaving him with the aboriginal affairs file and making Christopher Bentley AG. Overnight, his office’s budget went from $1.2 billion to $28 million. The feeling around Queen’s Park was that he was no longer a politician on the rise. But Bryant had one more move in his bag of political tricks.
John Tory was desperately looking for a safe Toronto seat. The Liberals were eager to exacerbate the internal fractures in the opposition, and preventing Tory from re-entering caucus in a by-election was one way to do it. It was around this time that members of Tory’s staff got wind that Bryant was fed up with the aboriginal file and considering an offer from the law firm Ogilvy Renault. Tory’s staff salivated at the thought—St. Paul’s was just the sort of riding they needed. Like Isabel Bassett (the last Conservative to hold the seat), Tory was a red tory with a high profile in downtown Toronto.
What happened next was a carefully considered series of political chess moves. According to a Liberal insider, “Bryant approached McGuinty and basically said, ‘Look, I can make 500K in the private sector. What am I doing running this piddly file? I’m out.’ He went to McGuinty with a loaded gun. So McGuinty blinked.” McGuinty pleaded with Bryant not to leave. He needed him now, and he needed him in St. Paul’s. Within a few days, McGuinty announced a cabinet shuffle and appointed Bryant minister of economic development, replacing Sandra Pupatello. On one level, it was a canny move on Bryant’s part, but it also made his already fraught relationship with the premier unsustainable.
In the eight months he held the economic development post, which coincided with the beginning of the last recession, his focus was on the province’s imploding auto industry. He tried to convince both McGuinty’s office and the federal government to move more quickly toward a bailout, and even flew to Washington with federal Industry Minister Tony Clement on a fact-finding mission to look into the possibility of a joint Canada-U.S. effort. In government circles, the mission was viewed as something of an embarrassment. Clement and Bryant were fobbed off on minor Capitol Hill staff and accused by the media back home of using the trip as a public relations stunt.
Bryant’s desire for the limelight was backfiring on him once again. One former Queen’s Park press corps member recalls Bryant’s staff walking up and down the corridors telling reporters that they had the real plan to fix the auto industry and the premier’s office didn’t. He was behaving recklessly, disregarding what his leader might think.
After the bailout, Bryant delivered a controversial speech at the Canadian Club. He spoke to the assembled Bay Street nabobs of “supra-ideological reverse Reaganomics” and “post-boomerism,” in which the provincial government swoops in to save the economy and emerges as a kind of “über-entrepreneur.” He went on to speak with self-aggrandizing fervour about “the great economic reset” the government had undertaken, quoting Emperor Augustus’s boast that he “found Rome made of brick and left it made of marble.” Bay Street was amused. The speech was intelligent and entertaining and a little over-the-top, like Bryant himself. The problem was, he didn’t bother to vet it with McGuinty’s office first.
Not that Bryant cared. With the implosion of John Tory’s leadership, McGuinty had made it clear he intended to seek a third term. Bryant gave up hopes for a leadership bid and had already hatched his escape plan. David Miller had discussed with Bryant a job as the head of Invest Toronto. In the end, it may have been Bryant’s own jockeying for position that ensured both Tory’s ultimate downfall and, by extension, McGuinty’s decision to stay on.
After leaving government in the spring of 2009, Bryant set about glad-handing the city’s business community on behalf of Invest Toronto. It was a baffling move to his friends, who thought he’d have been better off returning to Bay Street in search of big money or waiting it out in cabinet.
If his tenure hadn’t been cut short, he might have made something of the job.
During the first months after Darcy Sheppard’s death, Bryant was in a daze. One of the conditions of bail was that he couldn’t drive. And so, a few days after his arrest, he took public transit down to Duke’s Cycle on Richmond West to buy a bike. As he walked around the store checking out different models, the room fell silent. When he handed over his ID to take a test ride, the clerk read the name with disbelief. “Yup,” he said to his gobsmacked co-worker, “it’s actually Michael Bryant.” Bryant bought the bike.
While Abramovitch was putting in long hours at work, Bryant found himself at loose ends. He filled his days like a 1950s housewife: writing thank-you notes, picking up the kids from school and meeting friends for lunch. According to acquaintances, he was functional, but barely. The trauma of that night left its mark. Suddenly the city seemed much louder than it had before. Traffic made him jumpy; he flinched at the sound of honking horns. Riding in the passenger seat, he was a mess: the car seemed to be speeding out of control; collisions lurked around every corner. The 401 made him fear for his life.
Eventually he decided to seek spiritual guidance. He met with John Moscowitz, the senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple, as well as the MP Rob Oliphant, a United Church minister. He also contacted Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who referred him to an aboriginal elder. He travelled to Ottawa a couple of times to participate in private traditional aboriginal ceremonies designed to help him come to terms with Sheppard’s death.
At home, he and his wife sat a secular kind of shiva. Once a social power couple, they now avoided public parties and work events. Turning up for a good time at the Writers’ Trust gala or a film festival party suddenly seemed tasteless. The prospect of dressing up was downright gauche. And so they stayed in.
A condition of Bryant’s bail was that he couldn’t drive, so a few days after his arrest, he went down to Duke’s Cycle to buy a bike. “Yup,” the stunned store clerk said to a co‑worker, “it’s actually Michael Bryant”
According to friends, the couple began to feel the strain. While Bryant refused to contemplate anything but exoneration, Abramovitch thought through every worst-case scenario to its logical conclusion. The children, meanwhile, lived in ignorant bliss. After much debate, Bryant and Abramovitch told them that there had been a very bad car accident and a man had died as a result. The stuff about the charges, they left out. Hard as they tried, the facts seemed impossible to describe without leaving Sadie and Louis terrified their father might go to jail. They kept in touch with the kids’ teachers, who monitored the schoolyard chatter to see how much other children knew.
When Bryant went out, people stopped him on the subway or slowed down to offer him rides in their cars. A perennial optimist, he chose to listen to his supporters, rather than the angry bloggers and bike couriers who protested in the streets, heralding the end of his political career, saying he had killed a man with unreasonable force and would pay for his crime. For the first time in years, Bryant stopped updating his Wikipedia page. Interview requests poured in and were ignored. If there was a story about the case in the paper, he’d read the first couple of paragraphs and then trail off. He was slowly losing interest in what other people thought of him.
He even began to doubt his own reasons for going into politics in the first place. How much of it, he wondered, was for public service and how much was for the glory—the smug self-satisfaction of basking in the limelight? Was it fifty-fifty? he wondered. Or was he mostly in it for himself?
Eventually, he was offered a job. Richard King, the friend at Ogilvy Renault who’d tried to hire Bryant away from politics a year and a half before, convinced him to come work in the firm’s energy department. He was hired to be a fixer—to open up his big, fat Rolodex and help facilitate deals. And so, last December, Bryant quietly put on a suit and went back to work. It was a good thing, too, because the legal bills were piling up.
Marie Henein is a diminutive woman with dark eyes, bobbed hair and full lips that she paints a formidable shade of purple. Cool under pressure and bloodthirsty in court, she is the sort of lawyer who inspires nervous awe even in her own clients—a list that, by early September 2009, included Michael Bryant.
Like most good defence lawyers, Henein is known for getting people off. Last year, she successfully defended the hockey coach David Frost against charges of sexual exploitation. Her client, Dan Weiz, was the only defendant acquitted in the Matti Baranovski murder case.
Bryant settled on Henein, whom he had met before, in part because of her reputation for discretion. He knew Edward Greenspan, as well, but that wasn’t the kind of defence he needed. He wanted a lawyer who would ignore the media, defuse controversy and stamp out fires.
The defence was rigorous. Henein and her team of three associates consulted with experts, sent evidence to private labs for testing, reviewed eyewitness testimony and watched and rewatched security video footage of the event taken from Bloor Street cameras, checking her client’s story against those of the witnesses and comparing them to the forensic details as they emerged. It was all very CSI, with a budget to match. Bryant watched as his legal bills rose to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As Henein prepared her case, an amazing thing happened. People began to come forward, both to the police and, later, to Henein’s defence team, to say they had seen photos of Sheppard on the news and believed they’d been harassed by him in the past. In six separate incidents, detailed in Henein’s defence and later in the court summary, motorists recounted similar stories of Sheppard violently intimidating them, spitting on them, hitting the windshield with his fists. In some cases, he threw things at their cars or reached inside the open window to grab the steering wheel.
A man in an Adelaide West office building took cellphone pictures of Sheppard hassling the driver of a BMW. (He intended to send them to his landlord, to whom he’d been complaining about the ruffians who hung around outside, intimidating passersby.) The photographs depict a shirtless man with a mohawk reaching menacingly into the car as he clings to the vehicle’s running board.
When Henein saw them, she was stunned: the assailant in the photos was positively identified as Sheppard. Bryant and Henein knew this could clinch the case. “It was an incredible piece of evidence because it corroborated Michael’s version of events,” says Henein. “It made it clear this was not the normal type of interaction between a driver and cyclist.” Essentially, the pictures persuaded the court that Bryant was not the aggressor, but the victim of an assault. “To try to capture the feeling of what it’s like to be confronted with that kind of anger,” says Henein, “well, I could describe it to you using words, but there’s no way I could ever convey it the way it’s conveyed in those photographs.”
After stockpiling her arsenal of evidence, Henein settled on a defence strategy that is practically unheard of. Instead of saving her best material for trial, she chose to submit her case to the Crown in the hope they would drop the charges. It was a risky strategy; if the Crown didn’t find her evidence compelling, the case would still go to trial and the defence would be completely exposed.
“I felt like it would have been wrong to simply wait,” says Henein. “I mean, it would have been a great trial for me. But two years later, people would be asking, ‘If you had all this critical information, why didn’t you share it?’ ”
Special prosecutor Richard Peck, shipped in from B.C., studied Henein’s case file for six months. The Crown and the defence went back and forth, asking questions, investigating further evidence, until Peck was able to reach his decision.
In late May, Henein requested an early-morning meeting with her client. Under the industrial beams of her office at King and Spadina, she gave Bryant the news: all the charges were being dropped. Bryant put his face in his hands, unable to speak. “It was one of those moments when you can actually see the weight of something physically lifted off a person,” says Henein. “It was one of the most gratifying moments of my career.”
Two days later, in a courtroom packed with media, lawyers, and friends and family of Sheppard and Bryant, Peck announced his decision. In a detailed, 11-page court summary, he concluded that the evidence brought forward by the defence established Sheppard was the aggressor and, as such, the Crown had no reasonable prospect for a conviction. The reaction was a mixture of approval and shocked outrage.
Later that day, Bryant stepped up to the microphone in a hotel conference room near the provincial courthouse. Despite his clear relief, his mood was far from ebullient. He looked thinner, his trademark buzz cut slightly receded, his compact boxer’s frame erect in a conservative navy suit. From out of his breast pocket peeped a purple silk square—the only discernible sign of the flamboyant man he used to be.
Bryant thanked Henein, his family, friends and employer, Ogilvy Renault, and commended the police and justice system for acting in a fair and independent manner. He once again spoke of his profound regret over the death of Sheppard, pointing out that “We are all diminished by this loss of life.” But more than anything, Bryant seemed determined to show the world a new side of himself. He displayed his famous oratory skills, which for almost nine months had been concealed behind hearings and lawyers’ statements. “This has turned out to be a tale about addiction, mental health, an independent justice system and a couple out on their wedding anniversary driving home with the top down. It is not a morality play about bikes versus cars, couriers versus drivers, or one about class, privilege or politics. It’s just about how in 28 seconds, everything can change.”
The story of Bryant’s fall from grace was as stunningly dramatic as his ultimate vindication in court. The obvious question now is, what’s next? Those close to him say he is a changed man, full of contrition, humility and lingering contempt for his cavalier former self.
As for work, he has received several job offers, both in the private and public sector, but Bryant is taking his time. He is staying mum, laying low and considering his options. Most who know him believe a political comeback is in the cards—not one person I spoke to would rule it out. Then again, no one could confirm it, either. In political circles, there has even been wild speculation Bryant might make a federal bid, go for the leadership—that the PMO is not beyond his sights. If he does get back in the game, this time Bryant will be determined to learn from past mistakes. To slow down, shut up, play nice and, most of all, to do it for the right reasons.
His resurrection is already underway. When Bryant appeared at a business luncheon at the Royal York the week after the charges were dropped, the room gave him a spontaneous standing ovation.