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Wright will testify in own defense at Sweeney trial

Defense says the man accused of the 1998 killing of Renée Sweeney will testify to being at the scene of the crime on the day of the murder

Robert Steven Wright plans on testifying in his own defense at his second-degree murder trial and not only that, he will admit to being at the scene of the crime on the day the murder occurred. 

So stated one of Wright's two attorneys to a Sudbury courtroom during opening submissions today, Feb. 23.

Wright is currently on trial for the 1998 killing of Renée Sweeney, who was stabbed 30 times and bled to death on the floor of the adult video store where she worked. 

Opening statements were given by both Crown and defense attorneys this morning, which were described by Justice Robbie D. Gordon as a “roadmap” to the case and not to be considered as evidence. But those statements did provide a glimpse into the evidence available, and the fact that Wright would testify in his own defense. 

“You will hear from Robert, who will tell you, himself, he did not kill Renée Sweeney,” said Wright attorney Bryan Badali.

Wright was seated at the defense table with his attorneys, rather than in the prisoners’ box. Wearing a white dress shirt and black pants, Wright was again backed by several family members and supporters. 

The loved ones of Sweeney were also in the courtroom, with dozens of spectators filling out the benches, but dissipating as the day went on. 

Gordon told the 14 jurors that in order to reach that burden of proof to convict for second-degree murder, the Crown must prove each essential element of the crime: that Wright caused the death of Sweeney, that he caused her death unlawfully; that he had the state of mind required for murder, and; that he either meant to kill her, or caused serious bodily harm with the knowledge that she could die of her injuries. 

Wright has pleaded not guilty. He will testify, said Badali, that he was there in the Adult Video Store on that January day in 1998. 

The jurors will be free to return to their homes after each trial day, but will be sequestered for the length of their deliberation. 

During his opening statement, Crown prosecutor and assistant to lead prosecutor, Kevin Ludgate, told the jury what they could expect to hear over the next six weeks of the trial. 

He told them it would be “the interplay of science and common sense.”

Sweeney had reported for the morning shift at the video store, he said, working the morning shift and opened the store at 10 a.m. on what would be her last day alive. 

Ludgate spoke of the scene, that witnesses would testify that the scene showed evidence of a struggle, with videos on the floor, fallen from shelves. 

The first witness called in the trial for the Crown was Fred Nurmi, who worked for the two video store locations as manager from 1996-1999, one on Lasalle, the other on Paris, where the crime took place. 

Nurmi detailed the layout of the Paris street store, the exterior of the building, common daily activities – including trips to the bank for deposits, and he identified Sweeney from photographs doing just that on the morning of the killing. 

He also testified as to the location of a panic button that was on the sales counter. He also said she had called him at 10:30 a.m. to jokingly brag about a sale she had made for $89.53. 

He ended the call when a customer came in, but called Sweeney back at around 11 a.m., and she did the same when a customer entered. 

In his opening statement, Ludgate stated that Sweeney tried to fight, evidenced by a deep defensive wound on her left hand that severed the tendons. She had 30 injuries, said Ludgate, in the chest, abdomen, upper back, shoulder and neck, among others. He said she was incapacitated by these injuries, and those to her carotid artery and jugular vein, which left her unable to call for help or to even leave the store. 

“She bled to death on the floor,” said Ludgate. 

He said that DNA found under Renée Sweeney's fingernails and fingerprints in her blood match that of Steven Wright. He said during his opening statement that DNA found on a jacket and a pair of blood-soaked gloves discovered not far from the video store where Sweeney was stabbed to death match items owned by members of Wright's family. 

There were also two partial prints found on a cash box. The prints were marked in blood. Ludgate said their witness would show that Wright could not be ruled out as the owner of those fingerprints. 

And though Wright does not appear to have a history of violence, "Everyone who exacts violence on a person has a first time," Ludgate told the jury. 

Ludgate detailed a number of witnesses who would be testifying that they saw a person they believe to be Wright running from the store. 

Testimony to this effect also came from the second prosecution witness called today, Paulette Taillefer, who was having coffee that day at the Country Bagel shop on the corner of the plaza where the video store was located. She testified she saw a young man with glasses running from the direction of the health food store at the plaza (beside the video store), “clutching a blue nylon bag” and running “really, really fast.”

She attested that his glasses were not broken, and though she could not see his whole face, she did not see any blood or scratches. 

But according to defense attorney Badali’s opening statement, whether or not Wright was present is no longer an issue. He will testify that he was at the scene, but that he did not kill Sweeney. 

“Much of the evidence will be about what happened to Renée Sweeney,” he said, but not necessarily connecting Wright to that act. 

“He’s not going to dispute the evidence that links him to the store, that his DNA was found at the scene, that he was wearing the jacket. None of that linking evidence will be challenged, only what inferences you can and can’t draw from the forensic accounts,” said Badali. 

Badali also raised the spectre of another person, a name that is familiar to those following the case: John Fetterly. 

Originally charged with the murder in Feb. 1998, after a witness identified him in a police lineup, Fetterly was released the next day with an apology from police. 

Ludgate told the jury earlier of this, phrasing it as "Wright may attempt to point the finger elsewhere.” 

Badali also stated that the amount of DNA found under Sweeney’s fingertips was consistent with a scratch, but also, that the amount could be consistent with someone offering medical aid. He added that the witnesses did not describe any scratches on Wright. 

He then told the jury that they would hear from Wright himself. 

“You will hear from Robert, who will tell you himself he did not kill Renée Sweeney,” said Badali. “He came across the body on the floor, and he will say what he saw and did and why he left the scene as he did. He is going to provide answers to the questions you may have.”

A statement of facts was read into the record, which will be released to the media tomorrow, but included the agreement that based on her last transaction, there was $178.25 missing from the cash box at the store, as well as three large magazines and two adult pleasure products.   

Court resumes at 10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 24.


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Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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