Here is why the defence says Wright should be found not guilty of 1998 Sudbury murder
Closing arguments are being heard at the Sudbury courthouse Monday in the trial for the man accused of killing Renee Sweeney in 1998, with the defence saying there is plenty of reasonable doubt to support an acquittal.
The defence for Robert Steven Wright (RSW) – on trial for second-degree murder -- made its closing pitch to the jury Monday morning, painting the picture of a scared high school kid who fled the scene after coming across a dead body.
Robert Steven Wright was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in connection with the murder of Renee Sweeney.
Wright, 43, is charged with the death of Renee Sweeney, who was stabbed to death Jan. 27, 1998, while she worked at an Adults Only Video (AOV) store at a Paris Street strip mall.
He was an 18-year-old high school student at Lockerby Composite when the murder happened 25 years ago.
Police mistakes, crime scene evidence and the presence of a second suspect all point to someone else being responsible for the murder, Defence attorney Michael Lacy said in his closing argument Monday.
"This case is, really, is a whodunit," Lacy told the jury.
"Unlike TV, unlike a documentary, your job is not to follow the various threads and guess what might have happened."
Wright testified earlier in the trial that he wrote an exam, which ended around 11 a.m. the morning of the murder, walked to AOV and discovered Sweeney’s body.
After checking Sweeney’s pulse and breathing, Wright testified he realized he got blood on his teal jacket and white gloves, so he balled them up and placed them beside him.
When a young couple walked into the store and saw him crouched over the body, he panicked and fled, discarding the jacket and gloves in a wooded area behind the mall.
This is photo of the stained teal jacket that Brian McRury and his canine Oakey discovered during the track on Jan. 27, 1998. (Supplied)
A witness saw Wright run up the sidewalk outside the strip mall, but Lacy said blood was found in another direction in the parking lot.
Sidewalk in front of the Paris Street strip mall where Adults Only Video was located in Sudbury. (Supplied)
"Who deposited the blood in the opposite direction to the path that Steve took?" he asked.
Blood spot found in the parking lot of Adults Only Video on Paris Street in Sudbury. (Supplied)
CASH DRAWER FINGERPRINTS
Lacy also took aim at one of the more troubling aspects of the evidence from the defence standpoint: Wright’s fingerprints were found on the top and underneath the cash tray.
Under cross-examination by Crown prosecutor Rob Parsons, fingerprint expert Jeff Myatt said he was asked to examine two fingerprint impressions from the crime scene: a bloody print found on top of the cash tray at the crime scene, and a latent print found under the cash tray. (Supplied)
Why is blood not elsewhere on the tray, he asked.
"If he stole the money from the cash tray, why was there no blood on the (flips)?" Lacy asked.
The Crown narrative has Wright stealing two sex toys and three porn magazines, Lacy said. Yet that means Wright dumped the gloves and jacket but held on to the other items while he took the bus home -- something that he said also doesn’t make sense.
"Where’s the murder weapon?" Lacy asked. "The knife was never found."
Also raising doubts is the fact that Ray Hutchinson testified he saw someone enter AOV around 11 a.m.
The Jan. 27, 1998, murder of Renee Sweeney, 23, took place in an era when security cameras weren’t everywhere, as they are today. The killer managed, in broad daylight, to commit the crime and leave the video store without being caught on tape. (File photo)
"What do we know about that person who entered the store?" he said.
They do know that Hutchinson identified that person as John Fetterly, he said, not Wright.
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And they know Fetterly was arrested around the same time for stealing porn magazines near his residence in Walkerton and that he was obsessed with knives.
By comparison, there is no evidence Wright was obsessed with knives or that he knew Sweeney.
"Why would an 18-year-old high schooler who has no connection whatsoever to Renee Sweeney commit the crime," Lacy said.
"He had no reason to harm her."
TOOK THE STAND IN HIS OWN DEFENCE
Wright also took the stand to defend himself -- which he didn’t have to do -- and provided testimony that rang true, rather than offering pat answers to exonerate himself.
Sketch of Robert Steven Wright on witness stand as he is cross-examined by the Crown attorney during his murder trial in a Sudbury courtroom March 14. Wright's second-degree murder trial was delayed again Monday due to COVID-19. (Sudbury artist Tarun Godara)
"He was not required to take the witness stand," Lacy said.
"He could have just allowed us to make arguments on his behalf … He didn’t do that. He got up and answered every question."
For example, Wright could have said he left the exam after 11 a.m. and chatted with a friend and didn’t get to AOV until well after that time, the defence attorney said.
Instead, Wright admitted he wasn’t sure.
"A guilty person would have fabricated a detailed timeline to limit the opportunity to commit the offense," Lacy said.
"The Crown’s case connects Mr. Wright to the scene, but not to the crime."
MURDER WEAPON NEVER FOUND
Sweeney was stabbed 27 times he said and had reported before her death she thought someone was stalking her, Lacy said.
That sounds like whoever killed her had a "hatred for Renee Sweeney."
The Crown could have called Fetterly to clear up any doubts, he said, but it didn’t.
"We know he’s alive," Lacy said.
"The Crown chose not to put him on the witness stand."
Neither the magazines that were stolen were on the rack on the way out of the store nor the murder weapon has ever been recovered.
Inside the Adults Only Video store on Paris Street in Sudbury where Renee Sweeney was murdered Jan. 27, 1998. (Supplied)
"None of these items were found in the track of the path Steve took," Lacy said.
"(That’s because it) wasn’t the killer’s path, it was Steve’s path."
Canine dog track map after Sweeney murder (Supplied)
While the police point to the presence of Wright’s DNA on Sweeney’s fingernails and the debris collected from her hand during the autopsy, DNA experts testified that you can’t conclude definitively that it was left there as a result of a struggle.
"The perpetrator would not necessarily have left his DNA," Lacy said.
"The evidence from the DNA expert is actually supportive of the argument that RSW didn’t commit this crime."
Her fingernails weren’t damaged or appear as though there had been a struggle, he said.
"There is absolutely no evidence that (Wright) was scratched," Lacy said.
There were defensive wounds, but no evidence that Sweeney was able to fight back.
As far as the cash tray fingerprints, Lacy said the position of the cash drawer at the crime scene – it was pushed in on the left – matches Wright’s testimony that he grabbed something on the counter when he felt faint after checking Sweeney’s pulse.
Behind the counter at the Adults Only Video store on Paris Street in Sudbury. (Supplied)
"The tray is moved in on the left side as if someone was there trying to brace themselves," he said.
DOES THE CROWN NARRATIVE MAKE SENSE?
The Crown’s theory would have Wright commit the crime, lock the door, then wash up, unlock the door, find Sweeney moving and finish her off – just as the young couple enters the store.
It’s not a narrative that makes sense, Lacy said, nor does it make sense he would commit murder and then drop evidence – the jacket and gloves – as he runs away.
Close up of teal jacket and blood stained gloves found by a canine track in the snow after Renee Sweeney's murder in Sudbury Jan. 27,1998. (Supplied)
"View those actions through the eyes of an 18-year-old scared teenager," Lacy said.
If you were really trying to get away, "you would take those bloody items with you."
After the murder, he said Wright didn’t change his appearance or move away. He looked the same when he graduated as he did in the composite sketch that was released after the murder.
Paulette Taillefer's description formed the basis of the initial sketch released by police, left, and the couple from Laurentian University's descriptions form the basis for another police sketch, right. Robert Steven Wright confirmed Monday he was the person the sketches were based upon. (Composite Image by Dan Bertrand/CTV News Northern Ontario; source images supplied)
"These are not the actions of a murderer," Lacy said.
"These are the actions of a kid who made a mistake."
He also gave a theory of why Sudbury police were so hostile to Hutchinson, who picked Fetterly out of a photo lineup and said he was the person who entered AOV around 11 a.m.
Police later lied to Hutchinson and told him Fetterly was in custody at the time of the murder. They also threatened to charge him for misleading police.
"Why did they do that?" Lacy asked.
It was because his evidence didn’t fit with their 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?"
FIRST SUSPECT HAD FASCINATION WITH KNIVES
The nature of the crime and the evidence of Sweeney being stalked points to someone who knew Sweeney, Lacy said.
"There’s something very personal about attacking someone 27 times with a knife and brutally stabbing her in the neck, the way this perpetrator did," he said.
Whereas Fetterly had a "fascination with different kinds of knives" and is known to have stolen porn magazines, Lacy said there is "no evidence that Steven Wright went out with a knife or had a fascination with knives."
When considering this case, Lacy asked them to remember these details.
"Who’s the more likely person to be engaged in this kind of horrific gratuitous violence?" he asked.
On TV or podcasts, he said murder trials often have a moment when the truth emerges clearly, when a witness breaks down on the stand, for example.
"It’s not the way trials work," Lacy said.
Instead, the jurors have to listen to the judge and objectively weigh the evidence presented to them.
Justice isn’t served, he said, if you convict someone "just because the police decided to charge them."
"The numerous questions in this case scream out reasonable doubt," Lacy said.
"There’s only one just verdict in this case: to find Robert Steven Wright not guilty."
The Crown will deliver its closing argument Monday afternoon and the jury is expected to start deliberations Tuesday.
The trial has resumed after several COVID-related delays within the past week and a half.
CTVNewsNorthernOntario.ca continues to follow the trial from inside the courtroom and will provide updates Monday afternoon.
Find all of the previous coverage of the murder trial here.
The brutal stabbing death of 23-year-old Renee Sweeney rocked the City of Sudbury to its core on Jan. 27, 1998.
Police searched for her killer for two decades and finally charged Robert Steven Wright, who was 18 years old at the time of the murder. He has been held in jail since his arrest in Dec. 2018.
After several delays, the trial began Feb. 21, 2023, just after the 25th anniversary of Sweeney's death.
CTV News Digital content producer Darren MacDonald is bringing the latest from the courtroom every day and will have full coverage of the trial here.
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