Jean-Claude Savoie has been found not guilty of criminal negligence causing death in the python asphyxiation deaths of two New Brunswick boys in 2013.
The 11-member jury delivered its verdict about 8:45 p.m. AT on Wednesday, after nearly eight hours of deliberations.
Savoie, 40, threw his head back at the news and began to cry.
Justice Frederick Ferguson said the small northern New Brunswick community must accept the verdict.
Savoie declined to offer any comment to reporters outside the Campbellton Court of Queen's Bench.
He shook hands with and hugged his lawyers, who later spoke with journalists who covered the eight-day trial.
"He wished us to pass on his sentiments, of course he is very relieved," said defence lawyer Leslie Matchim.
"This is not a case where there are winners," said Matchim. "This tragedy took its tremendous toll on him."
Savoie was charged in the deaths of Connor Barthe, 6, and Noah Barthe, 4, more than three years ago.
The Barthe brothers were at a sleepover with Savoie's three-year-old son at Savoie's apartment in Campbellton on Aug. 5, 2013, when an African rock python escaped its enclosure through the air vent, fell into the living room where the boys were sleeping and killed them by asphyxiation.
"He was really like family to those two victim boys," said Matchim. "That is something he absolutely has to carry for the rest of his life."
- On mobile? Follow live blog here
- Python deaths case: 'It was a mistake' vs. 'It was a crime'
- Python deaths trial: 6 key pieces of background
The boys' mother, Mandy Trecartin, testified Savoie was her "best friend" and she believed her sons would be safe.
Trecartin attended the Court of Queen's Bench on Wednesday morning for the first time since her testimony last Wednesday.
Trecartin, 35, showed little emotion when the verdict was read, closing her eyes and then opening them again. There were no tears.
Trecartin and family members left the court without speaking with journalists, leaving Crown prosecutor Pierre Roussel to speak on their behalf.
"Obviously they are disappointed, but it is what it is," said Roussel. "The jury rendered its verdict and we will have to live with that for the moment."
Roussel said it is far too early to comment on the likelihood of a Crown appeal in the case.
Focus was Savoie's actions before deaths
The case hinged not on the events of Aug. 5, 2013, but on whether Savoie should have done to secure the python's enclosure following an attempted escape in the weeks previous to the fateful night.
The trial has heard the vent cap on the air duct in the python enclosure repeatedly fell to the floor of the python enclosure, yet Savoie did nothing to firmly fix it in place.
Furthermore, the jury heard Savoie had witnessed an earlier escape attempt through the 3½-inch (8.9-cm) opening by a python that measured a minimum of 4¼ inches (10.2 cm) in diameter.
The defence maintained Savoie's failure to affix the vent cap on the air duct after that incident was because that incident solidified in his mind the snake could not get through the ventilation pipe, which measured perhaps 24 inches (61 cm) in length with a 90-degree elbow.
The Crown argued that a reasonable and prudent person would have taken steps to secure the air duct, given the earlier escape attempt.
Failure to do so, the Crown argued, pointed toward criminal negligence: If the hole had been blocked, the snake wouldn't have escaped and the boys would not have been killed by it.
Judge's instructions took 3 hours
The judge took about three hours Wednesday morning to deliver his instructions on law to the jury and recap the evidence heard since the trial began on Oct. 31.
Ferguson told jurors that to find Savoie guilty, the Crown must have proved beyond a reasonable doubt the three essential elements of the charge of criminal negligence causing death:
- As the only adult present, Savoie had a legal duty to provide care and protect the Barthe brothers from harm and failed in that duty.
- That Savoie showed wanton and reckless disregard for the safety of others in his actions.
- That in failing his duty, Savoie contributed significantly to the deaths of the Barthe brothers.
If the jury found the Crown did not prove any one of those three essential elements, they must find Savoie not guilty, said Ferguson.
The verdict was delivered by an 11-person jury, because five days into the trial, a female juror was discharged by the judge.
After the jury left the courtroom following the verdict, Ferguson explained the reason for the juror's removal from the panel.
Ferguson said the juror admitted to a significant social relationship with Savoie.
The relationship was disclosed to the court by others outside the courtroom.
Ferguson indicated the juror had been initially excused from jury duty over the summer when 2,000 jury notices were sent out, but showed up at the Campbellton Civic Centre on the first day of the trial for jury selection and insisted she be put in the jury pool.
At no point did she disclose her relationship with Savoie, even after being screened.
The lawyers and judge were satisfied the remaining jurors could carry on with the case.