A full courtroom and a full cohort of jurors heard the final submissions from counsel in the second-degree murder trial of Robert Steven Wrigh on Mondayt.
Wright, who was arrested in 2018 and charged with the stabbing death of Renée Sweeney, and who has been in jail since, has been on trial since Feb. 21, when jury selection began.
Sweeney was at work at a video store in a plaza at 1500 Paris St. when, on the morning of Jan. 27, 1998, she was killed. At the time, Wright was an 18-year-old student at Lockerby Composite School, which was within walking distance of the store where Sweeney worked.
The Crown rested its case on March 10, after calling to the stand Sweeney’s manager, eye witnesses to the aftermath of the killing, police officers who investigated the crime and forensic scientists who could offer context to DNA evidence found.
The defence called Wright himself, who admitted that he had found Sweeney injured, and did not kill her. Believing she was already dead, Wright testified he fled the scene. The defence also called an eye witness, Ray Hutchinson, who described seeing another man going into the store before Sweeney was found dead. The defence rested on March 23.
Crown and defence also submitted several agreed statements of fact.
In all, the original slate of approximately 48 witnesses came down to a little more than 20.
March 27, is the day those witness testimonies came together in the closing arguments, first from both defence counsel, Michael Lacy, who spoke throughout the morning, and then from Crown attorney Rob Parsons, who spoke for the rest of the day.
‘Think critically,’ defence urges
Throughout his submission, Lacy spoke directly to the jury and asked them to “think critically.”
“Be critical thinkers when the Crown invites you to speculate or dismiss things,” said Lacy. “Think critically about anything suggested.”
Lacy described the closing arguments as an “opportunity to pull together evidence and give you our argument as to why you should find him (Wright) not guilty of the murder he is charged with.”
Lacy called this case different from others in that it is a “whodunnit,” but wanted to be clear with the jury that this is not a television show.
“Reflect on personal experiences with TV and streaming services, Dateline, Netflix, but unlike TV or a documentary, your job is not today to follow the various threads to guess what may have happened.”
He reminded the jury of the oath they took to decide the facts of the case, “an important and serious job,” and told them they only needed to answer one question: “Has the crown proved beyond a reasonable doubt that no one other than Robert Steven Wright could have committed this crime,” said Lacy. “If you stay true to your oath to follow the law,” he said, “the clear answer is no.”
During his summation, Lacy stated that while the Crown could connect Wright to the scene of the crime, they could not connect him to the scene itself.
“The Crown is trying to bridge the gap,” he said. “The Crown is relying on circumstantial evidence, not direct evidence.”
Lacy spoke to the fading of memory, and highlighted the number of instances where eyewitnesses inadvertently testified to things that was later deemed inaccurate.
As an example, Lacy mentioned the couple, a man and woman whose names are hidden by a publication ban, who first saw Wright kneeling over Sweeney’s body before he fled from the scene. The male witness testified he recalled seeing Sweeney’'s head move, when the pathologist, Dr. Kelly Uren later testified the muscle that was severed in the attack would have made movement “near impossible.”
As well, Uren’s name came up in relation to the fingernail clipping. Both Uren and now retired forensic officer Leo Thibeault both remembered clipping Sweeney’s fingernails at the post-mortem. Upon cross examination by Lacy, Uren reconsidered his testimony and stated instead he had held Sweeney’s hands, rather than clipping her nails.
Lacy noted that the witness who saw Wright fleeing also saw “nothing about his appearance that showed he’d been involved in significant physical altercation.”
Lacy also spoke to evidence and testimony he said “didn’t make sense,” including the theft of pornographic magazines and sex toys from the Adults Only video store — a theft the Crown attributes to Wright.
“He has these items then decides to discard the jacket and gloves but carries on with magazines and sex toys?” asked Lacy. “An 18-year-old high school student with no bag then discards his jacket, so now he's walking down Regent (Street) with three Puritan magazines and two sex toys? It doesn't make sense.”
Another aspect Lacy said didn’t make sense is the lack of known relationship between Sweeney and Wright.
“To carry out a horrific, brutal crime like this. He had no reason to harm her, it defies reason and common sense that he would do that because he was caught trying to steal magazines.”
Lacy also stated that Wright's testimony was a compelling argument, notably because he didn’t need to offer it.
“Bear in mind as you consider arguments,” he said, “Robert Steven Wright chose to testify before you. I hope it is not lost on you that he was not required to because of presumption of innocence.”
Wright could have “sat where he is sitting now, letting us make arguments and pointing out problems,” said Lacy, noting that Wright declined to do so. “He didn't do that, he stood up and took an oath and answered every question that was asked of him.”
Lacy also specifically stated that the DNA found on Sweeney could have come from what Wright said during testimony were his attempts to check Sweeney’s pulse. Lacy then referred to forensic officer Rick Waugh’s testimony regarding the risk of transference of Wright’s DNA as Sweeney’s hands were not individually bagged before her body was removed from the crime scene.
Additionally, there were no notes about the appearance of her fingernails. Lacy said no evidence was presented that Wright was scratched or injured, and “Sweeney’s fingernails were not damaged, there’s no evidence they were cracked or look like they were involved in altercation.”
Lacy stated the apparent gaps in Wright testimony are in fact signs it is true, not a “well-oiled” response. Lacy stated if Wright’s recollection was perfect, “the Crown would say what nonsense, no one remembers that much, his precision says he's guilty.”
He said rather “the fact that he is not trying a narrative that speaks to everything is evidence of its truth.”
Instead, Lacy said, Wright’s actions are the actions of a young person “not the actions of a murderer. These are the actions of a kid who made a mistake, who wishes he had stayed,” said Lacy. “But his leaving does not support the inference he is guilty.”
The name John Fetterly then came up once again. Lacy detailed the agreed statement of facts entered on March 23 detailing a Fetterly’s fascination with knives, his moody temperament, as attested to by the mother of Fetterly’s daughter, and information regarding an arrest of Fetterly in Walkerton, on Jan. 30, 1998, just three days after the murder. Fetterly entered a convenience store he was known to frequent, attempted to put pornographic magazines under his shirt, but then dropped them outside. The clerk knew Fetterly and reported him to the police.
The cash tray on which Wright’s fingerprints were found was also criticized, with Lacy zeroing in on the fact no blood was found on the cash tray despite the bloody scene. "If he stole the money from the cash tray, why was there no blood on the (flips)?" Lacy asked.
Lacy also discussed the two footprints found with a spot of blood in them, referred to as R3 and R4, that were in the far end of the parking lot. There was not enough blood to do a DNA comparison, but Lacy stated there could be “no coincidence this blood is found on the same day Renée Sweeney is brutally murdered.” He stated “the Crown wants you to dismiss (it), say maybe it's from others who were there, but there is no evidence of that.”
As well, Lacy pointed to what he considered lapses in evidence collection by the Sudbury Regional Police officers who processed the crime scene in 1998, pointing in particular to their failure to test the faucet, for example, for blood or fingerprints.
“Given the failure of the police to process that scene, how can you safely conclude that someone else was not using that bathroom to clean up, that someone other than Steven Wright was using that bathroom,” Lacy said.
Lacy brought up testimony from defence witness Ray Hutchinson, who testified March 15 that he saw a man going into the video store at around 11 a.m. on the morning of the murder.
“What do we know about that person who entered the store?” asked Lacy.
Hutchinson picked Fetterly out of a photo lineup on Feb. 12, 1998, but later became uncertain of his identification, an uncertainty he communicated to police more than a year later. Fetterly was released with an apology within days of his 1998 arrest.
Lacy said police also lied to Hutchinson and told him Fetterly was in custody at the time of the murder and threatened to charge him for misleading the police when he told them of his doubts.
Lacy posited for the jury that the strong reaction of the police was because Hutchinson’s evidence didn’t fit with the police’s theory that the guilty party was the person seen fleeing the scene.
"So they go after the eyewitness and tell the eyewitness he is a liar," Lacy said. "(Because) it was not Steve Wright he saw … Who is this mystery man? Who is the person who was there at that time when Mr. Hutchison saw them?" he asked the jury.
Lacy stated there were many unanswered questions in this case.
“Rarely will a case answer every question, but there is one question that has an answer,” he said. “But the Crown has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that no other person committed this crime. There is only just verdict: to find Robert Steven Wright not guilty.”
Devil is in the details, Crown argues
Parsons began his summation, as Lacy did, by thanking the jury for their time and commitment. He told the jury he wanted to provide a road map for them, and as he went through his submission, referred to certain moments as “cracks in the dam of truth.” A dam that had been holding for a quarter century, he said.
Parsons began a slide show presentation with an empty slide, simply a white screen. It was meant, he said, to demonstrate the physical evidence showing John Fetterly was the perpetrator of Sweeney’s murder.
“There is absolutely no real physical or scientific evidence that supports the bald assertion that John Fetterlly killed Renée Sweeney, or that he was even in Sudbury,” said Parsons.
“We intend to prove to you that Robert Steven Wright knowingly stabbed Renée Sweeney to death and that John Fetterly had nothing to do with it. It is a distraction. All of the prints found that day, of all the blood, of all the DNA, nothing, zero of that comes back to John Fetterly.”
Instead, Parsons told the jury, look at the work of police to investigate, the work of Parabon Nanolabs, who created an ancestry link that police could follow up on.
Despite the defence’s portrait of Wright as a scared teenager, Parsons said actually the jury had seen little evidence as to who Wright was at the time of the murder.
“At 17, Wright had 10 years as a boy scout, and that motto is ‘Be prepared’,” said Parsons. “Robert Steven Wright was very prepared to take a life. He was very prepared to steal, very prepared to flee, very prepared to hide evidence and very prepared to conceal what he’d done for a quarter of a century.”
Parsons leaned into the eyewitness testimony given by the male and female witnesses whose names are protected, detailing their testimony, and the nature of the person they described to police fleeing the store — a description that was used to build the composite image the Crown compared to Wright’s graduation picture to show their similarity.
Parsons stated that kind of memory, and the information taken within three hours of their discovery of Sweeney’s body, proves powerful evidence.
“That is incredibly powerful evidence from someone who observed it, testified and was really unshakable in cross (examination),” said Parsons. “When you think about all the witnesses you have to make an assessment of liability, how credible what they are saying is, and this is very powerful evidence.”
Parsons also spoke to the timeline, citing pathologist Uren’s description of the variability in the time a person could continue to make conscious movements after a fatal injury to the neck, ranging from one to five minutes.
Parson said the jury should take that clock in reverse. “Mr. Wright has himself, in his own evidence, said that he is in Adults Only Video for a couple minutes,” said Parsons. “So somebody else came in in the preceeding 180 seconds, got into the fight we've seen evidence of, in three different areas of the store, murdered Renée Sweeney, committed a robbery, washed up and then fled the scene … in 180 seconds.
“And they did that without DNA left and no fingerprints,” said Parsons.
The devil is in the details, said Parsons, before questioning the testimony that Wright offered on March 13 and March 14 going through the details for the jury, including what he called the “conscious decisions and choices” that Wright made on Jan, 27, 1998. Wright testified he was in a panic, but Parsons stated Wright:
- Decided to go into the store;
- Chose to keep his gloves on the entire time he was in there;
- Chose to flee the scene;
- Took the time to kneel over, gather his bloodied jacket and gloves, and bundle them up to disguise them even before anyone else entered the store;
- Chose to get up, run, hunched over with jacket protected as though trying to hide it, and;
- Chose to say nothing that day.
“He sprints down the sidewalk, doesn't stop at the payphone, at businesses, he recalls passing Pauline Taillefer, saying nothing; these are rational choices,” said Parsons. “A panicked person might be expected to keep running straight, be he takes the escape route. Of all the options he has, he picks the path behind the store,” said Parsons. “If your objective is to make an escape, he chose the best route.”
As to the DNA evidence, while Lacy and Wright stated it was from his attempts to render first aid to Sweeney, Parsons suggested that in that testimony there was no mention of contact specifically with Sweeney’s fingernails.
Forensic biologist Renata Dziak testified that it is the degree of contact that must be considered, whether it is “casual contact or contact with a degree of force.” Casual contact, she testified, could be hugging, changing a baby, or even working in the same environment, like an office. Lacy, in his March 10 cross examination of Dziak, asked if degree of force could mean changing a diaper on a squirmy baby, to which Dziak agreed.
Today, Parsons stated that in the case of Sweeney, contact would amount to “changing a diaper on a baby who is sound asleep,” and therefore not moving.
He also stated the cash tray that Wright said he steadied himself on, which left his fingerprints on top and bottom of the tray, was on a second shelf, covered by the top shelf.
“The Crown submits you should reject the story Mr. Wright has offered you,” said Parsons. “It is incredible beyond belief and it should not raise reasonable doubt. The evidence should lead to one conclusion, that Robert Steven Wright murdered Renée Sweeney.”
Parsons said Wright planned on going to the store. “He planned on going, he attacked her in three areas of the store, his DNA was left under her fingernails as she fought.”
Parson again suggested that there are “cracks in evidence, in his story, it is as if there were a dam that held back the truth for a quarter of a century” he said. That today the dam collapsed and with it, the truth hidden for a quarter of a century.
“It washes away the fabricated story and in its wake, nothing remains but the poor dead body of Renée Sweeney.”
Tomorrow, March 28, the jury will hear instructions from the judge regarding the evidence they have heard and how they should consider it within the law. After that, the jury will be asked to deliberate and come to a verdict.
Court will resume tomorrow at 10 a.m.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com.