'A sign of a broken system': B.C. widow frustrated with 'slow' legal process in hit-and-run case
A B.C. widow says she's feeling frustrated by the 'slow' court system as she waits for the person charged in her husband's hit-and-run death to be tried.
Michelle Masala lay flowers Friday at the memorial on the side of the road where her husband had been cycling when he was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver.
She said she'd heard a commotion at the time, but didn't know what was happening. Charles Masala died June 29, 2019, just blocks from his home near a trail head off Gaglardi Way in Burnaby.
“If I’d understood the significance of the sirens, I could have been here with him,” she told CTV News in her first interview since her husband died. “I didn’t find out until three hours later, and then he was gone.”
Monday would have been their sixth wedding anniversary.
In January of this year, 24-year-old Sumeet Mangat was charged with impaired operation causing death, dangerous operation causing death and failing to stop.
“The last two years have been difficult trying to figure out how to be a single mom while grieving through a pandemic with two small children,” said Masala. “Still quite often I expect him to come home.”
She said she's frustrated with the speed of the court process; how it took a year and a half to charge someone with her husband’s death and how, six months later, there is still no plea or trial date set.
“I want to move forward, I want to try and rebuild something with my kids,” explained Masala. “But we’re constantly being pulled back into the whole day (of the fatal crash) by being called by court, being called by police, waiting for a court date that doesn’t actually happen, and then having to sit and wait and tuck it aside again while we wait for the next date to come up.”
The next court appearance for Mangat is a pre-hearing conference scheduled for Aug. 19.
"These conferences are mandated by the court and must be held before a date is set either for a preliminary inquiry or a trial," said a spokesperson for the prosecution in an email.
"In cases where the Crown proceeds by indictment there is no requirement for a plea until the accused is before the trial court.”
The email goes on to say while the B.C. Prosecution Service tries to bring every case to trial in a timely manner, “some delays are unavoidable.”
Masala said she has been told a number of reasons for delays since charges were laid, including the pandemic, scheduling and logistics.
“If there’s not enough resources to deal with something that took somebody’s life, then that’s a sign of a broken system,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with the aftermath for two years, (the accused’s) been dealing with the aftermath for two years, it’s time to sort ourselves out at this point and not prolong it any further.”
Mangat’s defence lawyer, Paul McMurray, told CTV News it took a long time for the police to forward the report to Crown, and for Crown to approve charges. He also explained part of the delay is because the investigation is fairly substantial, and there’s a lot of information to be disclosed.
“I appreciate it’s not moving along as quickly as it might be, but it’s not moving along at glacial pace as some cases do,” said McMurray over the phone. “It’s not out of the ordinary.”
Masala said she’s not holding her breath that the next pre-hearing conference won’t also be delayed, adding she feels the system is not geared toward supporting families.
“There’s always a reason why it gets extended and none of it comes back to Charles’s rights, our rights as a family,” she said. “I full-heartedly believe that the police and the Crown, they’re doing the best that they can within the system that they have.”
In the meantime, Masala works hard to keep her husband’s memory alive for her kids.
“I talk about him. I talk about quirky things about him, like hot sauce is a big thing in our family, that my kids joke about putting hot sauce in my coffee because daddy loved hot sauce,” she said with a laugh.
“I try to keep the fun things about him, and also reinforce with them when we’re discussing the future, whatever that may look like, that they’re allowed to dream big because that was Charles’s thing.”
She described her husband as an excellent debater, who saw it almost as a sport to try to stump someone. He was also an avid cyclist.
“He always said that if he hadn’t been raised in rural Africa he probably would have been in the Tour de France. He loved, loved cycling,” said Masala.
She met Charles on a hiking trip organized through their church. She said it happened at random that she ended up in his car on the trip, and about a year later, they were married.
“It was just one of those super cheesy, love-at-first-sight deals,” said Masala.
Their daughter, now three, has his personality, she said.
“She’s a lot like her father. She’s got a lot of life to her, a lot of attitude and yeah, so much like him,” said Masala. “But she doesn’t remember him, so that’s a hard one.”
She said he was an engineer with two master's degrees and moved to Canada in 1991 from Zambia. His mother still lives there but Charles’s dad died before he found out about his son's death.
“I don’t know what happened that day because it’s not public record yet,” she said. “(It) was my husband’s life, those minutes were mine and I’m adamant in that argument -- in that those minutes, as his wife, were mine -- and I can’t have them yet. I don’t know what happened to him other than he was riding and he landed there.”
He always believed you can’t complain about something if you’re not going to do something about it, said Masala. She hopes by raising awareness about the court system’s short comings, it will be fixed.
“I just want him to be proud,” she said.
There’s a permanent memorial that’s been built on the side of the road where Charles died. A white bike painted with his birth country’s colours is there, along with photos reminding people he’s a father, son, brother, husband and friend, not just another hit-and-run victim.
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