When prominent criminal defence lawyer Edward Sapiano was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2014, he did not see it as the blow that could end his career but as a new challenge.
“I just decided that was fate levelling the playing field for my adversaries, but it didn’t work,” says Sapiano.
The exuberant Toronto lawyer’s defiant return to court saw him conduct a murder trial while he was on 24-hour dialysis.
He defended Michael Davani, who was ultimately convicted of the first-degree murder of Andrea White, a 33-year-old mother who was the victim of a drive-by shooting in 2014.
Davani’s co-accused, Alwayne Bigby, was found not guilty.
While Sapiano’s client did not get an acquittal or a reduced manslaughter conviction, the trial marked the start of his comeback into law after more than two years away from the profession he loves.
In August 2014, doctors pulled Sapiano off the Jennifer Pan murder case mid-trial when he was admitted to hospital for nine days.
The affliction came gradually to Sapiano as his health deteriorated over several months.
He had not gone to see a doctor in a decade, but the condition was likely also genetic for Sapiano whose father was forced into early retirement for health reasons tied to his kidneys.
Before he was admitted to the hospital, Sapiano’s health worsened to the point where he knew he was going to be pulled off the trial.
But it was not until he started to lose his eyesight that the determined Sapiano went to a doctor. He couldn’t read his phone or even see the judge’s facial features.
“I knew there was something wrong, but I was hoping to finish the murder trial,” he says.
When he finally went to the hospital, his blood pressure was so high that doctors first thought he might be on drugs.
Sapiano then spent more than two years up on his farm on a hill north of Toronto recuperating with his goats, chickens and bees.
He says being able to escape to this patch of land was huge in his recovery.
During his time away from law, Sapiano taught himself to weld, grew giant pumpkins and cut trails in the 72 acres of forest on his property — anything he could do with his hands to stay busy.
“I couldn’t do any cognitive work. My body wouldn’t allow it,” he says.
Sapiano says that almost two years into his ordeal, there was a point when he questioned whether he would ever get well enough to practise again, but a doctor assured him he would.
When Sapiano is not at his farm, he lives in a large loft in downtown Toronto surrounded by ornate antiques from China, France and Germany.
He now has two dialysis machines — one for his loft and one for his farm — that he plugs himself into every night.
Sapiano was not 100 per cent when he walked back into the courtroom in April, but rather than ease his way back in with smaller criminal defence matters, he dove right back into murder trials with the Andrea White case.
“I needed to return to the stuff that I do. I didn’t want to start back down on the bottom and work my way up. Murder [cases are] what I enjoy,” he says.
Sapiano says smaller cases for lesser charges would not have been fulfilling or challenging enough.
“I’m Edward Sapiano. I do murders. I do big cases. Coming back to do a shoplifting or minor trafficking would have affected me psychologically,” he says.
Sapiano was terrified that his doctor would remove him from his new trial if he struggled.
But since he entered the courthouse in April for the trial, he says he has only had three “brief episodes” and has only had to sit down once for five minutes during a cross-examination.
One problem Sapiano has encountered while practising law on dialysis is that sometimes he is so concentrated on his work that he forgets to do his midday exchange of fluids.
Looking for an advantage where he can, Sapiano did not take his blood pressure medication and drained a litre of fluid from his body the morning of his closing address so he would be “one kilo lighter” for his submissions.
Sapiano is now waiting for a kidney transplant. He says that multiple people have offered him one of their kidneys, but he has turned them down, as he’s waiting “for a cadaver.”
“I simply can’t be that indebted to somebody,” he says.
“I feel very uncomfortable about taking a kidney from somebody who is alive. I simply can’t be that indebted to somebody. I’m a very independent guy.”
Since his return, Sapiano has been a little concerned that his phone has not been ringing as much as it used to, but he’s confident it will as “the street is not fully aware” that he’s back.
“We’ve got the summer coming,” he says.
“The summer always produces more homicides, as terrible as that sounds.”
Credited with being an outside-the-box thinker, Sapiano has taken creative risks that have often paid off and garnered him a high profile in the Canadian legal community.
At some points in his career, lawyers told him moves he was making in the defence of his clients would end his career, only for him to persist.
In a 2005 murder trial, Sapiano faced off against Ontario Superior Court Justice Eugene Ewaschuk, arguing the judge had a bias against all defendants. Sapiano filed an application that Ewaschuk recuse himself based on research he had compiled of 20 years of the judge’s rulings, arguing it showed a pattern of bias.
The judge refused the application and the case later ended in a hung jury. The charges were stayed.
In the late 1990s, Sapiano raised the alarm on Toronto police officers who had been stealing funds that were supposed to be used to compensate informants.
He also willingly provided DNA evidence that exonerated his client Jeremy Foster, who had been arrested after he issued a false confession that he was a serial rapist in 1996. Sapiano called on the testing to be done, which let Foster walk free.
Sapiano says he is drawn to murder trials because of the high stakes.
“If you’re going to be a doctor, why not be a brain surgeon, right? So, if you’re going to be a defence lawyer, why not do murders?” he says.
There are few things Sapiano enjoys more than getting the disclosure on a new murder case.
He loves the first weeks he spends by himself going through the evidence, which he finds is like working on a great jigsaw puzzle.
With the Andrea White case now behind him, Sapiano is already looking forward to his next murder trial in September.
Until then, he’ll be preparing up on his farm.