The death of a popular chemistry professor from a Vancouver-area university was the culmination of a tumultuous relationship plagued by alcohol abuse, arguments and numerous encounters with the police, a judge heard Thursday.
Melanie O'Neill, 37, was found dead in her townhouse in Vancouver in July 2011, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Matthew Scott, has since pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Scott, now 28, was in court for a sentencing hearing.
O'Neill died from asphyxiation, possibly from being choked during a drunken argument, the court heard, but Scott has maintained he never intended to hurt or kill her. The Crown called for seven to nine years in prison, while the defence asked for five to six.
O'Neill and Scott came from markedly different worlds. O'Neill was a gifted scientist whose research at Simon Fraser University focused on bio-organic chemistry, and she was admired by her colleagues and students. Scott was a high-school dropout who drifted between jobs.
But when the pair met in the spring of 2010 during a chance encounter in Vancouver's Stanley Park, a courtship blossomed through a shared love of reading, art and music. They also shared problems with alcohol, the court heard, which together with Scott's gambling fostered a troubled relationship.
"The two of them were opposites in one sense," defence lawyer Michael Ritzker told the court.
"One can speculate about whatever it was that drew them together. ... They did have some things in common: some good things, and some not good things, such as alcohol."
Neighbours heard arguments
By the fall of 2010, Scott and O'Neill were living together, the court heard. Neighbours routinely heard loud arguments, including instances in which shouting was mixed with the sounds of running and crashing.
They encountered the police on several occasions, not only at the townhouse but also once in Squamish, B.C., where officers reported Scott and O'Neill were both drunk.
On July 22, 2011, the court heard, O'Neill sent Scott a series of text messages repeating many of her concerns about their relationship. She then contacted her cellphone provider to change her number.
That night, neighbours again heard arguing, followed by "running, chasing and thumping," Crown counsel Elliot Poll told the court.
"The Crown submits that's when Mr. Scott caused Prof. O'Neill's death," said Poll.
Scott spent the next several days selling O'Neill's belongings at pawn shops, drinking, watching pornography and searching the Internet for suicide methods. He wrapped O'Neill's body in plastic and hid it inside a closet, the court heard, and he eventually used O'Neill's credit card to book a flight to Edmonton.
He was arrested for public drunkenness at Vancouver's airport on July 26, 2011, the same night police officers discovered O'Neill's body after responding to a missing person report.
Scott initially told police O'Neill died during sex, after asking Scott to choke her.
'Mr. Big' sting drew different story
But when police set up an undercover operation known as a Mr. Big sting, in which Scott was invited into a fictitious stock market scheme, he told a different story to his supposed boss, who was actually a police officer.
Scott told the officer he choked O'Neill to keep her quiet during their argument, and he was so drunk he passed out on top of her. He suggested she stopped breathing under the weight of his body. When confronted with the details of the undercover sting, Scott told the same story to a police detective.
The Crown said an autopsy was unable to determine whether O'Neill died from choking or from being smothered.
The Crown prosecutor, told the court Scott's guilty plea was a mitigating factor to consider, but he pointed to Scott's actions after the killing — pawning O'Neill's belongings, stuffing her body into a closet, watching porn — to call for a long prison sentence.
Scott's lawyer suggested some of Scott's conduct after the killing could be explained by his addictions, rather than callousness. Ritzker said Scott pawned O'Neill's belongings to buy alcohol and he watched porn because he is addicted to Internet pornography.
"He resorted to those addictions as some kind of solace, anything to make him feel different than what he was feeling," said Ritzker.
The judge will rule on Scott's sentence at a later date.