When the jury foreperson read the verdict, finding Robert Steven Wright guilty of the second-degree murder of Renée Sweeney, a burst of joy, cries of “yes” and “thank you” echoed from one side of the courtroom.
From the other side, where Wright’s parents, sister, brother and supporters sat, there was silence.
Wright, dressed in a freshly pressed white collared shirt, sat with his attorneys, Michael Lacy and Bryan Badali as the verdict was read. He was as still and stoic as he had been through much of the trial. But after the verdict was read, as the public waited for the sentencing suggestions from the jury, Wright began to take deep breaths, his shoulders rising with each inhale. His parents wept, consoled by their children. Just before he left the courtroom briefly after the verdict to speak to Lacy, Wright came as close to his family as he could, leaning his head towards them as they whispered their love to him.
Throughout the trial, Wright’s father would stand as his son was brought into the room, similar to the way the court is asked to stand for the judge and jury’s entrance. Today, as he was brought back into the court to hear the sentencing recommendation, more than 40 of his friends and family stood.
The jury was brought into court at 4:15 p.m. this afternoon after deliberating since 12:30 p.m. yesterday, March 27.
The trial, at a little over five weeks in length, is the culmination of the investigation that has gripped the Sudbury community since Sweeney was murdered on Jan. 27, 1998.
Kim Sweeney, Renée Sweeney’s sister, appeared overwhelmed, elated and relieved. More than anything, she could not hide the smile from her face, even as tears poured from her eyes.
Outside the courthouse, Sweeney family friend, Kelly Irvine, spoke on behalf of Kim.
“After 25 years the Sweeney family is very happy with the verdict that came out today,” said Irvine.
“When the arrest was made on Dec. 11, 2018, we weren't sure what was going to happen but we were very hopeful. And with everything that the Greater Sudbury Police Services have done as well as the Crown’s office here in Sudbury, we are ecstatic about the verdict that has gone down today.
“Renee Sweeney got justice today after what horribly happened 25 years ago,” Irvine continued. “And Kim Sweeney and her family are very thrilled. They're going to take this time right now to debrief and relax and just spend some time with their family and all of the supporters.”
Irvine asked for privacy for the Sweeney family at this time, but noted that Kim wanted to thank her community.
“The main thing that Kim Sweeney would like to say to everybody now is she is so grateful and so thankful of the community support through all of this. The messages and everything have been overwhelming and she really thanks everybody that has supported her during this very difficult time.”
A second-degree murder conviction in Canada comes with an automatic life sentence, with parole eligibility between 10 to 25 years as decided by a judge. However, Justice Robbie D. Gordon told the jury that while they were not required to do so, Gordon would consider any sentencing recommendation, provided it was no less than 10 years and no more than 25.
When the jury returned to court approximately 10 minutes after the verdict was read, the judge read their recommendations. Of the jurors, two stated no less than 20 years, two stated 22 years, two said 23, and seven jurors felt no less than 25 years was appropriate.
Lacy told the media he would be appealing the verdict.
“Our client testified, he denied that he committed this offense,” said Lacy. “He was compelling.”
Lacy also stated that he felt the Crown’s closing arguments were prejudicial. “The jury doesn't know this, but the Crown's closing argument to the jury was often prejudicial. It 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 once again stated he felt the jury should have had reasonable doubt. “As I told the jury at the time, this case screamed out for reasonable doubt, and I can only assume that what happened was the jury was affected by what we say was a very improper closing.
“Now, Mr. Wright still has to be sentenced. And we have to respect that process. Obviously, Justice Gordon will have to determine what is a fit and appropriate sentence, but of course, there's also appellate-level courts that may have to take a look at this case now, as a result of the Crown's conduct.”
When asked about Lacy’s comments, Crown Attorney Rob Parsons, standing with co-counsel Kevin Ludgate, said it was up to Lacy to deal with. “I was content with the closing that the Crown presented. Probably the best I can say about it,” said Parsons.
He called the verdict and investigation an “incredible series of events."
“I've lived in Northern Ontario since 1989, I know the mark that this has had on the community of Sudbury itself and across the North,” said Parsons. “It was a long road getting here.”
He also thanked the jury, calling them the most attentive he’d seen in his career.
When Sudbury.com asked Parsons what it was like to speak to Sweeney’s sister Kim after all this time, he said it was one of those reasons that gets you through long waits, working to get ready for a trial like this.
“It's the reason Crown attorneys do what Crown attorneys do.”
Sergeant Robert Weston, the primary investigator on the case since 2013, said this was never a cold case.
“This investigation has been in the public's eye and in the face of the Sudbury Regional Police and the Greater Sudbury Police for the past 25 years. The police service never gave up, this case was never a cold case,” he said. “This day is about Renée, sister Kim, her family and her friends, Carol, Bill (Sweeney’s late parents.) Mostly this day is about Renée ... she can finally rest in peace. The person responsible for … (her) brutal murder has been held accountable by a jury of his peers. Today was a really good day.”
Wright will next appear in assignment court on April 4, to make arrangements for sentencing.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com