In the summer of 2009 Michael Bryant, the former attorney general of Ontario, was driving along a major downtown Toronto street when he and his wife were confronted by an intoxicated and mentally unstable cyclist. The cyclist, Darcy Sheppard, a bike courier who rarely greeted a new day without a hangover or a glazed look of being stoned, found it perversely amusing to harass motorists. The confrontation between Sheppard and Bryant was brief--only 28 seconds--but by the end of this encounter Sheppard was dead and Bryant was in the back of a police car, handcuffed and a national news story the next day. 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy, and Hope is Bryant's account of those 28 seconds, and the aftermath.
The library however classifies this book as a biography, so when I saw the special biography sticker on the spine I knew that the story would not start (barring a brief prologue) with the night of the fatal encounter. Of the book's 337 pages, Bryant doesn't discuss the encounter with Sheppard (euphemistically referred to as "the 28 seconds") until page 121. 28 Seconds starts with Bryant's early years growing up out west, then his legal education in Toronto. As Bryant was moving up in legal circles he relished media attention and loved being the centre of boisterous scrums:
"Pit bulls were inherently dangerous dogs, I believed. Let's actually try to eliminate the problem, not appease a host of voices. The issue came to dominate the media coverage of the government. It didn't matter what we did. Three syllables--Pit! Bulls! Banned!--were the story. I was getting a lot of ink, and loving it."
Bryant was a media whore, no question about it. He loved when his name and picture appeared in the paper, and his young children idolized him when they saw their super daddy on the news. While he was moving up in the provincial government he was also submerging himself deeper and deeper into the bottle. The subtitle of this book refers to addiction: his own alcoholism as well as Sheppard's wasted lifetime on drugs. I found it incredulous that Bryant could have functioned as an MPP as well as attorney general while being so often off the wagon. His colleagues however would subtly inform him that his drunkenness on the job was starting to show. Bryant writes of his addiction recovery program (likely Alcoholics Anonymous yet he never refers to it by that name) and sobriety, which, as all recovering alcoholics attest is a constant, daily battle.
At first Bryant was crucified by the media, the public and especially by the cycling community. He was immediately charged and jailed, and upon first glance it looked as though this was a case of the rich and powerful literally running over the poor and marginalized. He was tried by public opinion and found guilty of murder by road rage. Every left-wing space case, especially those who would eventually bring ridicule upon themselves as part of the comical Occupy movement a couple years later, was ready with tar and feathers to send Bryant clucking.
28 Seconds outlines Bryant's defence in second-by-second detail. Bryant, who by now was several years sober and thus not driving drunk, was unfortunately only in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is all he is guilty of. Sheppard, who had a history of harassing drivers along the same stretches of downtown streets, blocking traffic and confronting individual cars, risked his life every time he grabbed onto the driver's side window and tried to scramble inside. What driver would sit there and let it all happen? Bryant and his wife were terrified and acted as any reasonable people would: they wanted to get the Hell out of there as fast as possible.
In writing this account of the 28 seconds that would change his life forever, Bryant makes it painfully obvious that he is falling over backwards to try to understand the man who died. He talks about his own drunken state of mind and sees where he himself once was, and can at times even put himself in Sheppard's place. For this Bryant is a better man than I am. His sympathetic approach to understanding Darcy Sheppard is one I do not share. I see a drug addict who got his kicks by playing with fire--and finally got burned. That I myself am a careful cyclist who obeys the laws makes Sheppard's behaviour all the more abhorrent. I have no respect for him.
Bryant was wholly exonerated of all charges nine months after the 28 seconds. That he was the former attorney general of Ontario gave him no preferential treatment, not that he should have received any. In fact, Bryant himself knew the legal process and what steps were likely to occur next. He also understood that as former attorney general, the legal process would have to be raised to the highest level of transparency to show that it was not doing him any favours. Bryant knew over the course of the nine months between charges and exoneration that any other person involved in the exact same situation would not have been jailed and charged so quickly.
Since Toronto is the location for the 28 seconds I knew exactly what places he was talking about and what roads he followed as he recounted the run-in with Sheppard. I even knew the ice cream store he visits because it's a local landmark, where I myself have been many times. So I have a warm spot for all the Toronto details he fondly shares. His remark about Toronto streetcars, however, is not my own experience:
"Compared to other world-class cities, the transit in Toronto at times can be embarrassing. The 'streetcars' look like museum pieces: old--really old--beasts of metal that rumble along tracks laid out on certain main thoroughfares, like the one near our house."
Is he talking about Toronto's old PCC streetcars? They're rickety. The modern ones--though thirty years old now--hardly fit his description.