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Stab wounds to Sudbury murder victim’s neck were fatal blows, pathologist testifies

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Warning: This story describes the autopsy of a murder victim and contains many details some people will find upsetting.

The forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Sudbury murder victim Renee Sweeney testified Thursday that a series of four wounds to her neck proved to be the fatal blows.

Dr. Kelly Uren was testifying at the trial of Robert Steven Wright, who is charged with second-degree murder in Sweeney’s Jan. 27, 1998, death.

In response to a question from Crown prosecutor Rob Parsons, Uren said the autopsy began at 9:47 a.m. on Jan. 28, a day after the murder.

It was conducted in North Bay because at the time, there was no one qualified to do it in Sudbury.

The exterior of Sweeney’s remains was examined first. That examination provides an “overall impression of the general health of the person and any external injuries … that may be present,” he said.

Uren said he noted a total of 27 wounds, including to the abdomen, neck, upper chest and hands. He said there were five cuts in the T-shirt Sweeney wore the day she was killed.

He described most of the wounds as serious but not life-threatening by themselves. For example, there was a stab wound that pierced 8 ½ inches into her abdomen.

“In and of itself, it was not life-threatening,” Uren said, but added that “it would bleed a lot.”

“There’s (also) a slash or cut on the thumb, with a deeper one right across the palm.”

There were also a series of stab wounds to her chest – about five – that were not very deep.

“None of the wounds penetrated the chest cavity,” he said.

Two more wounds were found on the left side of the neck, Uren said -- one just above the hairline, the other below the earlobe.

There were significant wounds to the right cheek and another large wound at the base of the right side of the neck

“This wound is somewhat more significant,” Uren testified.

It appeared to be from a series of four blows and resulted in the carotid artery being partially severed.

“The extent of those injuries, and the multiple cuts, leads it to being a more significant injury,” he said.

“This is the injury leading to death.”

Uren explained there are two carotid arteries, one on each side of the neck.

“They carry a considerable amount of blood” to the brain, he said.

“The carotid artery was partially transected.”

If the artery had been completely severed, Uren said there was a better chance of stopping the bleeding because the body would respond to try and close the artery.

But that’s not what happens when the artery is partially cut.

“It can bleed more than a completely transected (artery),” Uren said.

Renee Sweeney was a 23-year-old student at Laurentian University who worked as a part-time clerk at Adults Only Video. She was stabbed to death while working at the store sometime between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, 1998. (File)

Other wounds cut into the jugular vein and Sweeney’s trachea. Combined, he said the wounds would have led to massive blood loss in a very quick time period.

He estimated there would be maybe a minute or two of “voluntary conscious movement” by the victim before shock and blood loss set in.

“Take it with a grain of salt” he added, of the time estimate, because there could be several variables.

But in response to a question from Parsons, Uren said it’s hard to picture a scenario in which the victim is conscious for more than four or five minutes.

“I would be very surprised if someone could physically resist after five minutes with a wound like this,” he said.

“In two minutes, she could conceivably have lost more than a litre of blood. That’s 10 per cent of her blood … Five minutes of active struggle? I doubt it.”

Sweeney likely wouldn’t have a pulse within four or five minutes, he added.

“I suspect probably less,” Uren said.

“A pulse requires working bodily fluid.”

Uren said he couldn’t offer many specifics about the blade used in the killing. He said “hilt marks” can sometimes be seen when a full blade enters the body and the top of the handle leaves a mark.

UNSURE ABOUT THE KNIFE

But the clothes Sweeney wore likely would have prevented hilt marks from being visible.

“It was a relatively stout blade,” he said, adding it was roughly two centimetres wide. The deepest wound was 8 ½ inches.

In response to a question from defence attorney Michal Lacy, Uren explained that a severed artery doesn’t “spray” in a way often shown in movies and TV.

“When an artery is cut … it’s not a spray that will cover everything,” he said.

It’s more of a surge or a “pulse of blood” that would rapidly diminish as blood pressure drops.

Uren also said that a muscle in Sweeney’s neck was cut – the muscle that allows people to turn their heads to the right.

“So she could no longer turn to the right?” Lacy asked.

It would be difficult but not impossible, Uren replied, adding it would be almost impossible.

He had testified earlier that he was the one that clipped Sweeney’s fingernails to be preserved in bags as evidence. But Lacy pointed out that former forensics officer Leo Thibeault testified Wednesday that he had clipped the fingernails, not Uren.

“Would that be a complete shock to you?” Lacy asked.

“No,” Uren responded.

“I can’t say I remember actually doing the clipping. I remember holding the hands.”

Lacy suggested it was a matter of believing he had a strong memory of something that happened a long time ago, then realizing it was a false memory when prompted with what actually happened.

“Absolutely,” Uren said.

The trial ended for the day after Uren’s testimony and will resume Monday morning, where CTV News' coverage will continue.

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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