New Brunswick

Python deaths trial jury hears closing arguments

The focus of Jean-Claude Savoie's trial for criminal negligence causing death is switching from the python attack on the two boys as they slept, to an attempted escape by the snake some weeks earlier and Savoie's failure to take any action after that incident.

Jury will receive instructions from judge Wednesday in criminal negligence causing death trial

Jean-Claude Savoie heads from court in Campbellton, N.B., on Tuesday. Savoie is charged with criminal negligence causing death after brothers Connor and Noah Barthe were asphyxiated by an African rock python in August 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The focus of Jean-Claude Savoie's trial for criminal negligence causing death is switching from the python attack on the two boys as they slept, to an attempted escape by the snake some weeks earlier and Savoie's failure to take any action after that incident.

Savoie, 39, is charged with criminal negligence causing the deaths of Connor Barthe, 6, and Noah Barthe, 4. The boys died when they were attacked by Savoie's African rock python as they slept after the snake escaped through a 3.5-inch air vent from its enclosure in Savoie's apartment in Campbellton, N.B., on Aug. 5, 2013.

Savoie did not testify and the seven women and four men on the jury heard closing arguments from the defence and Crown on Tuesday.

Defence lawyer Leslie Matchim pointed the jury to an incident as many as seven weeks earlier in the apartment, when witness Ocean Eagles testified Savoie told her the snake attempted to escape through the same pipe.

Leslie Matchim, the defence lawyer, said the killing of the two young brothers by Savoie's African rock python was a "tragic accident," but not criminal negligence. (CBC)
Savoie made no attempt to secure the plastic vent cover to the pipe after that, Matchim acknowledged.

But he said this was because the incident made Savoie feel confident there was no way the large snake could fit through such a small opening.

"He didn't ignore it because he was too busy or too lazy," Matchim said in his closing argument of almost 90 minutes on Tuesday morning. "He concluded there was no possiblity of an escape through the pipe."

We say the attempted escape was proof that you are safe.- Leslie Matchim, defence lawyer.

​Matchim told the jury he anticipates the closing statement by Crown prosecutor Pierre Roussel on Tuesday afternoon will push the notion that incident was "a red flag" and Savoie should have acted to block the escape route.

"We say the exact opposite," said Matchim. "We say the attempted escape was proof that you are safe."

To prove criminal negligence, the Crown must prove beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors that:

  • Savoie had a legal duty to care for and protect the Barthe brothers
  • Savoie acted in wanton and reckless disregard for the safety of the Barthe brothers and his behaviour was a marked departure from that of a reasonable person.
  • Savoie's actions were a significant contributing factor to the deaths of Connor and Noah

Crown's closing statement

As Matchim anticipated, the Crown prosecutor did key on the earlier escape attempt by the python and Savoie's failure to block the air vent.

"Mr. Savoie saw that animal hanging halfway through that pipe," said Roussel. "On August 5 that animal got through the pipe a second time … with fatal results.

"I will submit to you a reasonable person would block the opening so it wouldn't happen again," said Roussel.

Savoie trial closing arguments

5 years ago
2:02
Lawyers made their closing arguments in the trial of a man accused of criminal negligence causing death after a giant python killed two young boys. 2:02

The Crown prosecutor also noted testimony by Eagles, Savoie's former volunteer at his Reptile Ocean unlicensed zoo and pet store, that Savoie "laughed" about the initial escape attempt.

"It was a laughing matter. We know now there is nothing funny," said Roussel.

Many times Roussel stated a reasonable and prudent person would have taken steps to block the escape route.

"A reasonable person would take appropriate measures," he said. "It was dangerous to live in that apartment.

"He assumed the snake could not get through," said Roussel. "That assumption was false because it did get through and killed two kids."

Roussel said the only reason the Barthe brothers are dead is because of Savoie's failure to attach the vent cover through the four screw holes.

"It would not have taken a lot of work," he said.

"Mr. Savoie failed to do what a reasonable and prudent person would do," said Roussel.

"It is not mere negligence here. He committed a crime."

Roussel said Savoie's failure to secure the escape route is "more than a mistake."

"It is a crime."
 

Father figure

In his closing statment in the morning, Matchim painted a picture of Savoie acting as a father figure to the Barthe boys, picking them up at day care often and citing the example of taking them to his father's farm to enjoy riding the tractor and playing with the animals.

"That tells me he was a good father," said Matchim. "That would not be the same guy who would be reckless and cavalier with their lives."

Matchim noted in the 911 call to report the deaths, Savoie told the operator "I've got another one up there" (his own son) and he had to go get him.

"He didn't distinguish between the neighbours and his son," said Matchim.

At that point in the closing, Savoie took tissues to wipe tears from his eyes. Most of his supporters in the front row of the court behind him were crying as well.

Matchim told the jury Savoie's belief the snake could not fit through the pipe was not out of line with the thoughts of a "reasonable person," pointing to testimony by Ocean Eagles and snake farmer Eugene Bessette they did not believe such as large snake could fit through such a small opening."

"He concluded wrongly, but he concluded there was no risk," said Matchim.

"The evidence doesn't just raise reasonable doubt," said Matchim. "It shows others came to the same conclusion.

"That doesn't make it right," he said.

"It was just a mistake."

Justice Frederick Ferguson will give his instructions on the law to the jury beginning at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, after which the jury will begin its deliberations.

Ferguson told the jury to expect his instructions to take up to three hours.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alan White is a Fredericton native who has been working as a journalist since 1981, mostly in New Brunswick. He joined CBC in 2003 and is now a senior producer. He can be reached at alan.white@cbc.ca

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