Judge denies defence motion to move Wright trial, but COVID-19 might force change of venue anyway
Robert Steven Wright is charged in the death of Renee Sweeney, who was stabbed to death on Jan. 27, 1998. (File)
SUDBURY -- A Sudbury judge has denied an application by defence lawyers for Robert Steven Wright to have his second-degree murder trial moved to Toronto.
Wright is charged in the death of Renee Sweeney, who was stabbed to death on Jan. 27, 1998. In a decision released Thursday, Superior Court Justice Gregory Ellies ruled that "the trial may, nonetheless, have to be held in a venue within the northeast region outside of Sudbury because of constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Wright was originally charged with first-degree murder and was arrested at the North Bay Regional Health Centre in December 2018, where he worked as a lab technician. The Crown downgraded the charge to second-degree murder in August 2019, and proceeded by way of direct indictment, which, Ellies wrote, deprived "Mr. Wright of the right to have a preliminary inquiry and requiring him to go directly to trial on the charge."
Defence lawyers had argued Wright would be unable to find an impartial jury in the Northeast region, because of the amount of publicity the case has garnered in the media when the crime happened, in the years before Wright was arrested, and since his arrest.
Prejudice could not be overcome
Ellies wrote that to make the case, defence lawyers had to show that a fair trial wasn't possible anywhere in the northeast because of the publicity, and that the prejudice could not be overcome by the tools in the jury system.
In evaluating the application, the judge referenced an attempt to have another high-profile case moved out of Sudbury because of the publicity. In that case, Clinton Suzack applied to have his trial for the murder of Sudbury Police Const. Joe MacDonald moved to another community. The judge in that case rejected the application, a decision that was upheld in an appeal to a higher court.
That decision placed a fairly high bar on moving trials, requiring the defence to prove that procedural safeguards in the jury selection process and judicial instruction to jurors wouldn't be sufficient.
In terms of claims that media coverage created prejudice against Wright, Ellies wrote that after extensive coverage when the crime happened, stories tapered off after a few years.
"By January 2001, it had dropped off to the point where it appears from the evidence to have been the subject of media reports about once per year, usually around the anniversary of her death," he wrote.
While the defence argued media coverage kept the crime in the public's mind, Ellies ruled he is not convinced "that a story or two per year about the killing over those 17 years should weigh much in favour of a change in venue."
Media coverage greatly intensified since Wright's arrest in 2018, but the judge wrote that is common with such high-profile cases and doesn't mean a change in venue is required.
Ellies also rejected defence arguments that media coverage of the fact Wright was seeking a change in venue for his trial was, in itself, a reason the trial should be moved.
The judge wrote that assuming potential jurors would be biased against an accused just because of a change in venue application is making too big an assumption. He wrote the opposite was likely true, that someone would be determined to show they were not partial or biased.
Ellies also wrote that much of the biased commentary on social media was unjust "and fundamentally wrong." But he said there were many comments in favour of waiting until the trial before jumping to conclusions.
"The social media commentary also shows that the presumption of innocence is alive and well within a pool of prospective jurors in Sudbury," he wrote.
And the judge found some weaknesses with a survey commissioned by the defence intending to show Sudburians knew about the case and had already made up their mind that Wright was guilty.
In his conclusion, the judge stated that, “Based on the evidence, I am not satisfied that there is a fair and reasonable likelihood of widespread partiality or prejudice in the Sudbury area” or that it exists in the Northeast region either. He also referenced the judicial safeguards in place, noting that the Crown has agreed to a number of orders, including the defence being given a larger than normal jury pool to pick from, challenges for cause and pre-emptory challenges along with the selection of additional jurors. The defence will also be given a list of people who have made comments on the case on social media.
However, the trial still could be moved because of COVID-19, Ellies wrote. In order to have jury trials, some areas have rented convention centres in order to proceed safely.
They are hoping to do that in the northeast soon, but Ellies wrote he will have to prioritize the cases to ensure they are heard in a timely fashion.
"This means the trial in this case may be moved from Sudbury to another judicial centre," he wrote.