New Brunswick

Python deaths 'a tragic accident,' defence argues

The killing of young brothers Connor and Noah Barthe by an African rock python while they slept amounts to "a tragic accident," but not criminal negligence, the defence lawyer for the snake's owner argued in court on Monday.

Smells of farm on sleeping boys may have made hungry python believe they were prey, trial told

Jean-Claude Savoie is on trial in Campbellton, N.B., charged with criminal negligence causing death after two young brothers were asphyxiated by a snake during a sleepover with Savoie's son in August 2013. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The killing of young brothers Connor and Noah Barthe by an African rock python while they slept amounts to "a tragic accident," but not criminal negligence, the defence lawyer for the snake's owner argued in court on Monday.

The Crown wrapped up its case Monday against Jean-Claude Savoie on a charge of criminal negligence causing death stemming from the death of the brothers on Aug. 5,  2013.

In his opening statement before calling his first witness, defence lawyer Leslie Matchim termed the deaths of the boys "a tragic accident."​

Savoie's large African rock python escaped its enclosure in his apartment through an air vent that did not have a cover on it as it had fallen off repeatedly, the trial has heard. 

Matchim said the question for the jury of seven women and four men is whether Savoie's failure to secure the vent cover amounts to criminal negligence.

The jury has been told that to prove criminal negligence the Crown must prove Savoie showed wanton and reckless disregard for the safety of others and that Savoie's actions showed a marked and substantial departure from the actions of a reasonable person.

"Jean-Claude Savoie paid no-never-mind to the cover of the pipe because he came to the determination the snake was too big to get through the pipe," said Matchim.

"Being wrong isn't criminal negligence."

Boys smelled like prey

​The lingering smells of animals on Connor and Noah just hours after the young brothers visited a farm may have played a role in the attack by the python, the jury also heard Monday.

"Those boys could have been a stimulant," reptile behaviour expert Robert Johnston testified.

Savoie, 39, was charged after Connor, 6, and Noah, 4, were asphyxiated by the snake during a sleepover with Savoie's son.

The python escaped its enclosure in Savoie's apartment through an air vent, and ended up falling through the ceiling tiles in the adjoining living room where the Barthe brothers slept, the Court of Queen's Bench has heard.

Testimony Monday offered the first glimpse of why the snake may have acted in such a way.

They are not going to use the energy to kill something they don't feed on.- Robert Johnston, reptile behaviour expert

Johnston, of Pickering, Ont., is now retired after working 41 years at the Toronto Zoo, including 30 years as the curator of the reptile exhibit. He testified Monday that the smells may have led the snake to mistake the two young boys for prey.

"They are not going to use the energy to kill something they don't feed on," he said.

Necropsy results presented earlier in the trial showed the snake had not eaten for at least the 24 hours before it was euthanized.

Johnston said the snake, which weighed 53 pounds (about 24 kg) and was 12 feet, four inches (nearly 3.76 metres) long, could have picked up the scent molecules from the boys in the next room and followed the scent to the boys.

Enclosure design

Johnston was recognized as an expert witness by the court, which allows him to give his opinions in his area of expertise.

Johnston examined a vent cover that was supposed to cover the air duct entrance in the ceiling of the enclosure and said it would be an effective barrier "if it was on the vent."

The vent cover from the air duct in the python enclosure was entered into evidence in Savoie's trial. (Julie-Anne Lapointe/Radio-Canada)
The vent cover had four holes in which to place screws, he noted.

"In the ceiling, gravity itself might cause it to fall  off," said Johnston.

Also,  the snake could accidentally knock it off.

Johnston said a snake enclosure at the zoo would include elements such as rocks, branches, trees and a refuge area for the snake. The python enclosure in Savoie's apartment had no such features.

"The only word I can use is that's a stark environment," said Johnston, adding he would not consider it to be "conducive" for the snake and its natural behaviours.

"That environment would drive some of that [aggressive] behaviour" by the python, said Johnston, referring to the aggressive behaviour described by other witnesses.

The African rock python that killed Connor Barthe, 6, and his brother Noah, 4, weighed 53 pounds (about 24 kg) and was 12 feet, four inches (nearly 3.76 metres) long, a veterinary pathologist testified. (Campbellton Court of Queen's Bench exhibit)
Johnston called the snake's behaviour "an extreme response."

"This animal was dangerous," he said.

He recalled earlier testimony that a pole-like device would be used to pin the python's head against the wall of the enclosure, and described it as "aggressive behaviour by the caregiver."

Johnston said the snake was probably afraid of people.

"These boys had more bites than I would ever expect," he said. "It's disturbing."

Earlier escape attempt

Earlier testimony has shown the snake made its way into the air vent on a previous occasion.

Johnston said that would mean the snake would attempt to do so again, and called it "uncanny."

"Once they've been out once, they know exactly where to go again," he said.

"They would go back to that for sure."

Snake farmer testifies for defence

The defence called snake farmer Eugene Bessette, of Archer, Fla., as its first witness. Bessette has been raising pythons and boas since 1980 and was recognized by the court as an expert witness in the physiology and behaviour of pythons.

Necropsy measurements put the girth, or diameter, of Savoie's snake at 4¼ inches at its maximum. Bessette, who has participated in more than 100 snake necropsies, said the snake's girth could have been 25 per cent larger than that when it was alive.

The minimum diameter of the air duct through which Savoie's python escaped was 3½ inches.

"I sit here in disbelief that snake went through that hole," said Bessette.

"When I walk out that door I will continue to be in disbelief that it happened."

But Bessette did accept that scientific evidence shows the snake did indeed escape through the air duct. The defence has agreed to that fact.

Given the section of the air duct that is an exhibit in the trial, Bessette held it, looked at its openings at both ends, and shook his head several times.

"I am amazed that snake got out through that hole," he said.

When asked by Matchim the predictability of the snake getting out of its enclosure through that pipe, Bessette replied: "There's no way in hell that snake would be getting through that hole.

"If it was my snake, I wouldn't have been worried about it getting through that hole."

The trial resumes Tuesday with the Crown's cross-examination of Bessette.

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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