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Northern Ont. family ‘ecstatic’ as 25-year-old murder mystery finally solved

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Robert Steven Wright was convicted Wednesday of murdering Renee Sweeney, a little more than 25 years after her brutal killing shocked the northern Ontario community of Sudbury.

Jurors took just more than 24 hours to convict Wright, 43, of second degree murder in Sweeney’s death.

A forensic biologist with the Centre of Forensic Sciences testified Friday that physical contact is the most likely way that Robert Steven Wright’s DNA was found on Renee Sweeney’s fingernails. Sweeney was murdered while working at Adults Only Video on Paris Street in Sudbury on Jan. 27, 1998. (Supplied)She was working as a clerk at Adults Only Video at a Paris Street strip mall Jan. 27, 1998, when she was stabbed 27 times and bled to death.

The case remained unsolved until Wright was arrested Dec. 18, 2018, at the North Bay hospital, where he worked as a lab tech.

Advances in DNA evidence allowed police to identify Wright as the owner of DNA found under Sweeney’s fingernails. His fingerprints were found underneath and on top of the cash tray.

While it took more than four years to bring the case to trial, a verdict came quickly. The jury began deliberations Tuesday afternoon and returned with a decision the following afternoon.

Extra security was on hand in the courthouse and the families were cautioned to treat each other with respect once the verdict was read.

“Some of you are going to be very unhappy with it,” Justice Robbie Gordon said.

“Respect one another.”

Screams of joy from Sweeney’s family rang in the courtroom as the foreman of the seven women, five men jury announced the decision.

Wright’s family had a sombre reaction, quietly sobbing. Wright himself didn’t show any obvious emotion.

Outside the court, a spokesperson for Sweeney’s sister Kim gave a statement thanking police and the Crown.

“After 25 years, the Sweeney family is very happy with the verdict that came out today,” said family friend Kelly Irvine.

“With everything that the Greater Sudbury Police Service has done, as well as the Crown’s office here in Sudbury, we are ecstatic about the verdict here today.”

After a quarter of a century, Irvine said Renee’s family finally got “justice” and will now take time to “debrief, relax.”

Robert Steven Wright, 43, is on trial for second-degree murder in the 1998 death of Renee Sweeney. He took the stand Monday afternoon to testify in his own defence. (File)

“The main thing Kim Sweeney would like to say to everybody now is that we are so grateful and so thankful for the community support through all of this.”

Wright’s lawyer, Michael Lacy, made it clear that they will appeal the verdict. Lacy objected to the Crown’s closing arguments, telling Gordon that it “compromised the fairness” of the trial.

“The jury doesn’t know this, but the Crown’s closing argument to the jury, we took the position it was improper,” Lacy said.

“It was prejudicial and needed to be corrected. Otherwise, there was a real risk of a miscarriage of justice and the real possibility the fairness of the trial was compromised.”

Lacy said the case “screamed” reasonable doubt and said the jury seemed to be misled by the Crown.

'SCREAMED' REASONABLE DOUBT

“This case, as I told the jury at the time, screamed out for reasonable doubt,” he said.

“I can only assume that what happened was the jury was affected by what we say was a very improper closing.”

Crown prosecutor Rob Parsons disagreed, saying there was nothing wrong with his final arguments.

“I was content with the closing that the Crown presented,” Parsons said, adding that a decision to appeal is “something Mr. Lacy will deal with.”

While it’s hard to guess any verdict, he said he was confident with the case he presented.

“I wouldn’t say anyone was surprised,” Parsons said.

Broadly speaking, he said being able to bring justice to the Sweeney family is the reason he’s a prosecutor. And it makes the four years it took to bring the case to trial more than worth it.

“It was one of those reasons that gets you through those long nights working to get ready for a trial like this,” he said.

“It’s the reason Crown attorneys do what they do.”

After delivering the verdict, the jury made recommendations about how long Wright should stay in prison without eligibility for parole. A second-degree murder conviction brings an automatic life sentence, which is 25-years in Canada.

Seven of the jurors recommended he serve the full 25 years, two said 23 years before he’s eligible for parole, one said 22 years and two said 20 years.

While jurors can make recommendations, the actual sentence is up to Gordon. The sides will meet April 4 to set a date for sentencing. 

CTVNewsNorthernOntario.ca has been inside the courtroom for the entire trial. Find previous coverage here.

Background

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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