In a packed Sudbury courtroom this morning, it was the Crown’s turn to question Robert Steven Wright, the man accused of murdering Laurentian University student Renée Sweeney 25 years ago.
Wright is on trial for second-degree murder of the killing of the 23-year-old, who was stabbed 27 times on Jan. 27, 1998, while at work in a video store located in a plaza at 1500 Paris Street.
The case was cold for decades before Wright was arrested in 2018. A new technology allowed for the isolation and comparison of DNA sourced from Sweeney’s fingernails and Wright could not be excluded as the source of that DNA.
He has been incarcerated since, having been denied bail four times. Wright testified yesterday (March 13) that while he admits to being in the store on the day of the murder and finding Sweeney’s body, he testified he did not kill her.
Wearing a light grey collared shirt today, Wright was again on the stand today, this time for questioning by the Crown. Though he was emotional yesterday, often speaking through tears, his voice was more controlled today. He was soft-spoken as he testified.
Crown attorney Rob Parsons began his questioning in much the same way Lacy did yesterday, asking about Wright’s childhood and his time as a member of Scouts Canada. He even asked Wright to recite the Scout motto. Wright replied: “Be prepared.”
Parsons asked if Wright considered himself to be an athletic person, an outdoors person. Wright agreed. Parsons asked about the football jerseys that Wright could be seen wearing in several family pictures shown to the jury during previous testimony. Parsons asked if Wright preferred American or Canadian football. Wright said he preferred Canadian.
Parsons said, “Go Blue Bombers.”
Wright replied, “Go Argos.”
Parsons asked if, while running from the store, Wright felt like a football player, with something tucked under his arm.
“You're running as fast as you can?” asked Parsons.
“I'm guessing I would be,” replied Wright.
“Got to get away, right?”
Wright replied, “Yes, I did not want to be there anymore.”
Parsons then asked Wright if, as a football fan, he would agree that the “fastest way to get down the field is without a ball, without cradling a ball.”
“Correct,” Wright replied.
“So while you were in a panic, on your way as quick as you could, you held on to that bag — what we now know is a jacket — holding on even though it slowed you down.”
“Possibly,” Wright said.
Wright testified the jacket he was wearing the day of the murder was a “communal jacket” in his parent’s home. It was his father’s old jacket that was kept hanging at the back door, he said. “The gloves were also just hanging around?” asked Parsons.
“Correct,” said Wright.
“Did you see any pictures of that jacket in the days following murder?” Parsons asked Wright.
“I saw the posters, yes,” he replied.
“Between your parents, yourself, Chris (Wright’s younger brother), your sister, no discussion of ‘holy cow that's odd’?”
“No, there wasn't,” said Wright.
“How about the composites that are ultimately released,” asked Parsons. “Any discussion had with your loving parents, who you trust and turn to up until that day in your time of need. Any discussion?”
“Only with my brother,” replied Wright. “We made jokes … about it looking like his friends.”
Parsons asked Wright about the timing of his day, and the testimony he gave on March 13 about the length of time it took him to reach the video store where Sweeney was murdered, and how long he was in the store.
Though Wright testified he was there for between one and two minutes, Parsons made Wright go back over his testimony from yesterday, including his approximate timeline, seemingly in an attempt to poke holes in Wright’s testimony. For instance, when Wright testified it took him between five and seven minutes to walk from Lockerby Composite School to 1500 Paris Street, Parsons used the seven-minute figure.
Doing the same with key points in the timeline Wright established in his testimony yesterday, Parsons suggested to Wright that, rather than being in the store at the most two minutes, he was actually inside the store between six and eight minutes before the male witness and female witness testified they came into the store.
“I would suggest I was only there for two minutes before the couple walked in on me and then I ran,” Wright replied.
Parsons attempted to continue along these lines until defence co-counsel Lacy objected. “You’re asking him for guesses, he’s giving you guesses,” Lacy said.
Parsons then began asking Wright specific questions based on his testimony from yesterday, many of which Wright was unable to answer. No, he did not try to use the jacket to stop the bleeding, he testified in response to Parson’s question. He only touched Sweeney three times: To shake her left shoulder with his right hand; to check her breathing by leaning over her, his ear to her mouth, and; to check her pulse on her right hand.
“No where else you would have touched Renée Sweeney?” Parsons asked.
“Not that I can remember,” Wright replied
Wright did get more specific with his feelings. He specified that while at the scene of the crime, he was in “panic mode”, but after he had run away from the video store, he said he began to think of the repercussions of having left a crime scene. That is why he dumped the jacket and gloves, though he has no specific memory of doing so.
He testified he had “two small memories, one, seeing townhouses to my left while walking in the bush, and two, crossing the road, which I believe was Walford.”
Parsons asked why Wright didn’t stop anywhere to seek help, as there were several stores in the plaza and a nearby pay phone. The Crown attorney suggested Wright could even have gone to his mother’s workplace, which was about a 15-minute walk from the video store. Wright said he wasn’t thinking.
“At this point you know it’s a crime scene?” asked Parsons.
“Yes,” Wright replied.
“At first you're overwhelmed … then panic sets in and the panic governs until discarding your jacket and gloves, and that's when your crime scene fear comes in?”
“Correct,” replied Wright.
Parsons asked if Wright had blood on his hands. Wright said he did not. Parsons then suggested that was because Wright washed his hand in the bathroom. Wright said he did not enter the bathroom, nor did he wash his hands there.
He also testified he has never owned a pair of Brooks shoes. Shoe prints found in the video store bathroom were made by a style of Brooks running shoes.
“What are the number of items you touched?” asked Parsons, referring to items in the store.
“Specifically, I can't say because I don't know what I touched when I steadied myself,” Wright replied. “I believe it was the cash tray as my fingerprints were located on the cash tray, I briefly touched it and then the front door.”
“You indicated to Mr. Lacy that you didn’t lift the cash springs, you didn't say ‘I have no recollection of lifting the cash traps’,” said Parsons.
“I don’t know what I touched, but I know I didn't lift the cash springs,” Wright replied.
“But in reality, that was an incorrect answer,” said Parsons.
“Sure, I should have said I only remember touching something briefly,” said Wright.
Parsons asked Wright how his DNA could be on Sweeney’s fingernails.
“You have no recollection of how your DNA could have come into contact with Renée Sweeney’s fingernails,” asked Parsons.
“Specifically, no, generally it could have happened while I checked her pulse.”
Lacy objected to this question. After a voir dire, the contents of which Sudbury.com cannot report due to a publication ban, Justice Robbie D. Gordon gave a statement to the jury on the record.
“Asking Mr. Wright for an explanation — those types of questions shift the burden of proof from the Crown to [the accused] and that's not how the law works,” Gordon said. “He (Wright) is under no obligation to (offer evidence).”
When the trial resumed, Parsons asked Wright why he took the jacket and gloves with him, if he was in a panic to leave the store.
“Why did you take the jacket with you when you left?”
“Because it was my jacket,” testified Wright.
“But you threw it away,” said Parsons. “Why did you take your jacket from the store, then discard it? Your most desperate thing is to get out of that store, why did you stop to get the jacket?”
“I wasn’t thinking, I just grabbed my clothes and ran,” said Wright.
Parsons asked what happened between wanting to keep his jacket and wanting to throw it away.
“When I disposed of them, I was thinking. When I picked them up, I wasn't thinking,” said Wright.
“You needed that jacket because you were in the midst of committing a robbery,” posited Parsons.
“That is incorrect, sir,” replied Wright.
“I want to suggest that you had toys and porn,” said Parsons.
“You would be incorrect, sir,” said Wright. “I didn't take anything from the store.”
Parsons then continued to “suggest” to Wright, and told him to “correct me if I’m wrong.”
“I suggest to you that you made your way down from Lockerby (Composite School, where Wright was a student) on the day in question, you went inside the store, a struggle ensued with Renée Sweeney, a struggle that quickly grew violent. What do you say to that?” asked Parsons.
“I say that's not true,” Wright replied.
“I suggest Ms. Sweeney fought back and she defended herself as much as she could and that required extreme force by yourself at some point.”
“I would also say that is not true,” replied Wright.
“At some point directly at the time or around the time that the male witness was looking down on you, you were actually scooping items, those items being pornography and sex toys.”
“I say that is not true, I say that I was wrapping my gloves in my jacket at that point,” replied Wright.
“At some point while in that store you did indeed get your fingers on the cash tray, not to hold yourself, but actually committing theft at this point,” said Parsons.
“Not true,” said Wright.
“Ultimately and I'm suggesting this to you, Renée Sweeney fought back to the point where you panicked and took yourself to the point where you had to kill her so you could get out of that store.”
“That is not true,” Wright said.
With this, Parsons finished his examination of Wright. Lacy then stood and took the opportunity to ask several followup questions of Wright, specifically getting Wright to reiterate that he cannot recall whether he moved the cash tray. As well, he asked about Wright’s time in Scouts and the motto that Parsons asked him to recall.
“Did any of your time in Boy Scouts prepare you for what you saw,” Lacy asked.
“No, it did not.”
With that, the man accused of a 25-year-old murder who chose to take the stand in his own defence ended his testimony.
While the accused was certainly the most anticipated witness to testify to date, his wasn’t the only testimony delivered today.
The defence called a witness who testified that Renée Sweeney may have had a stalker.
That witness, Catherine Yurich-Gratton, testified that she also worked for Adults Only Video, where Sweeney was employed, but at the Lasalle Boulevard location.
She and Sweeney were casual acquaintances, Yurich-Gratton testified, but she said that Sweeney had confided in her that the university student had been followed home by someone. However, she could not recall when Sweeney had told her the following incident had occurred, nor when it had occurred in relation to the murder. Yurich-Gratton said Sweeney was concerned enough by the incident that felt she had to alter her route home for safety reasons.
Kim Sweeney, also attested to her sister’s concern regarding a possible stalker in an agreed statement of facts between the Crown and the defense, which was read into the record by Justice Gordon.
In the attestation, Kim Sweeney stated her sister told her she believed she was being stalked or followed, but had not shared many details, so Kim Sweeney could not say if her sister had been followed by a person in a car or on foot. She also attested in the statement that her sister had received several answering machine messages prior to the murder that she described as “unusual” in the sense that no message was left. The person waited for the machine to pick up and then ended the call.
The defence will continue to call witnesses tomorrow, March 15, when court resumes at 10 a.m.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com