Editor’s note: This story includes references to and descriptions of knife wounds suffered by the victim.
The pathologist who conducted the post-mortem exam on murder victim Renée Sweeney testified today, March 2, in the second-degree murder trial of Robert Steven Wright.
It was a deeply emotional day, one punctuated with tears as the jury and the Sweeney family viewed the detailed photos of the 27 stab wounds and cuts on to the young woman’s face and body.
At one point during this testimony, Kim Sweeney, sister to the victim, was overcome by emotion. The courtroom then emptied for the morning break, including the judge and jury. As Kim Sweeney was escorted out through the jury exit, she crossed directly in front of Wright. She looked him in the eye and spoke a few words before being ushered out by her loved ones. She returned to the courtroom several minutes after court resumed.
Renée Sweeney was a Laurentian University student when she was murdered in 1998, majoring in music and working at the Adults Only Video in a plaza at 1500 Paris St., the site of her murder. Wright was an 18-year-old high school student in 1998 who lived at home with his parents in Val Caron, but attended a high school a short walk from the plaza at 1500 Paris Street.**
Now 43, Wright was arrested in December, 2018, for the Jan. 27, 1998, murder.
Day six of the trial heard testimony from Dr. Kelly Uren, who flew from his home in Nova Scotia to testify.
In 1998, Uren was a pathologist at the North Bay Hospital. He testified that Sudbury did not have the facility at the time, though it was set up soon after.
Uren completed the post-mortem examination of Sweeney’s body on Jan. 28, 1998.
As Crown attorney Rob Parsons went through Uren’s original report, he also took the jury and the witness through 40 photos of Sweeney’s injuries. Parsons and defense co-counsel Michael Lacy said the photos had been “vetted and redacted” where possible as they were sensitive images. However, many people in the courtroom found the images difficult to view. Many in the courtroom shifted in their seats as the photos appeared on several large screens; several jury members appeared to glance at the photos briefly, before returning to the paper copy of the written pathology report they had been given to aid in understanding Uren’s testimony.
Parsons began questioning by confirming procedural details, how the report was written, who was present for the examination. These people included another doctor, a student, and two Sudbury Regional Police officers, Leo Thibeault, who testified March 1, and Rick Waugh, who is on the witness list but has yet to testify.
The photos showed some post-mortem lividity — the gravitational settling of blood in vessels after circulation has ceased — and some bruising that Uren said could have happened hours or a day before the murder.
Several wounds were described as superficial, including some scratches. They were described as superficial as they were not particularly deep, did not hit “vital structures” and, in and of themselves, were not life-threatening, Uren testified.
Each wound was labelled W (wound) and then a number, but not the order the wounds were inflicted, the order they were processed by the coroner.
It was W-10 that was the fatal wound.
Uren described it as a large wound at the base of the right side of Sweeney’s neck.
“It appeared to be a complex of at least four wounds,” said Uren. “This wound was deep enough that vascular structures were injured and the right sternocleidomastoid muscle severed.”
The sternocleidomastoid muscle is the main muscle for turning a person’s head, Uren testified. It attaches at the base of the skull to the collar bone. On cross-examination, Lacy asked if this meant that Sweeney could not turn her head to the right.
“It would be extremely difficult if not impossible,” replied Uren.
A male witness whose name is under a publication ban testified on Feb 24 that when he told Sweeney he would get help, he thought she moved her head slightly towards her right shoulder.
The wound also “partially transects (cuts through) the carotid artery, and the extent of those injuries and multiple cuts, leads to this being a more significant injury,” said Uren.
Partially transected means the carotid was “not cut completely across, but more than 50 per cent (but) less than 100-per-cent cut.”
There are two carotid arteries, Uren testified, on the right and on the left side of the neck.
“They carry a considerable amount of blood to the brain,” he said, “and the brain is a hungry organ.”
Uren noted that though counter-intuitive, a partial transection can cause blood loss faster than complete transection, as complete would cause the artery to compress, slowing the bleeding slightly.
The knife used to commit the murder also cut Sweeney’s jugular vein, both anterior and exterior, and in addition to the defensive wounds on her left hand — a large cut through her palm, in addition to one at the base of her thumb — would have caused a significant and fatal loss of blood.
Uren was asked about timing, including how long someone could make conscious, voluntary movements after sustaining this number and severity of injuries.
“Probably less than a minute,” said Uren. “But these are usually dynamic situations with the deceased probably having increased pulse, pressure, adrenalin, so take that one minute with a grain of salt, there could be considerable variation on either side.”
“Five minutes?” Parsons asked.
“I would be very surprised if someone could physically resist at five minutes for a wound like that,” said Uren, referring to W-10.
He testified that the carotid artery carries about 450-480 milliitres of blood in a minute. “And that’s a normal, healthy individual at rest in a doctor’s office,” Uren testified.
In two minutes, at 450 ml, Uren said Sweeney would have lost more than a litre of blood just from the carotid injury, and a person can only withstand 10 per cent of total blood loss “before you go into hypovolemic shock”
Parsons asked about the ability to detect pulse. “It’s unlikely that she would have a measurable pulse in any form beyond four to five minutes,” Uren testified. “There could be electrical activity in the heart, but a pulse requires a working volume of fluid, and in four to five minutes there is not enough fluid left. I expect probably less time.”
When it was his opportunity to question the pathologist, defence co-counsel Lacy asked about the type of weapon and if Uren could draw any conclusions beyond it being an edged weapon. Even with the wound measurements, Uren said he could not, as Sweeney's clothing prevented what he referred to as “hilt marks”, marks from the handle of the knife that would indicate length of blade or type of knife.
Lacy asked how many times Uren had been asked to take a fingernail sample. Uren said it was the first time he had been asked, and additionally, he had not taken fingernail samples during a post-mortem exam since that time.
Uren testified he remembered obtaining the fingernail clipping tool, soaking it in bleach for five minutes, rinsing it with saline and letting it air dry to avoid fibre or genetic contamination. He also testified he cut the fingernails.
Uren’s memory regarding who actually clipped Sweeney’s nails contrasts with testimony the jury heard from forensic officer Leo Thibeault on March 1 who said he remembered clipping the fingernails and seizing them for evidence.
“So it would come as a complete surprise to hear that we heard from a witness yesterday who claimed that he clipped and collected the fingernails, that would be a complete shock to you?” Asked Lacy.
“Actually, no, because I remember the sterilization, but if he collected them …” Uren trailed off.
“I can’t say that I remember doing the actual clipping. I remember holding the hands.”
“Up until about 30 seconds ago, you thought it, but your memory has failed you?” asked Lacy.
“Fair enough,” Uren replied.
“No one is suggesting you were trying to mislead,” said Lacy. “The passage of time, memories fade, fair enough?”
“Fair enough,” Uren stated, before being excused.
The trial ended early today at 12:30 p.m. The trial continues March 6 at 10 a.m.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter at Sudbury.com.
**Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Robert Steven Wright lived with his parents within walking distance of the murder scene.