Lawyer for white man convicted in Reno Lee murder says racial bias towards co-accused may have impacted trial

The three men found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Reno Lee are appealing their convictions. One of their lawyers says the trail judge didn’t make sure the jury was impartial on racial bias.

Bronson Gordon, Daniel Theodore and Andrew Bellegarde are appealing 1st-degree murder conviction from 2018

Bronson Gordon, Daniel Theodore and Andrew Bellegarde are appealing their convictions of first-degree murder in the death of Reno Lee. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

The three men found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Reno Lee are appealing their convictions, on grounds including an argument the trial judge didn't do enough to ensure the jury was not racially biased.

Christopher Murphy, the lawyer for Daniel Theodore, told court Monday that although his client is not Indigenous, it would be hard for the jury to separate him from his two co-accused, Andrew Bellegarde and Bronson Gordon, if they were prejudiced. Both Bellegarde and Gordon are Indigenous.

Theodore, Bellegarde and Bronson were convicted of first-degree murder in 2018 in the 2015 death of Reno Lee.

Lee was bound, confined and fatally shot at a Regina home in April 2015. His body parts were found buried in bags in a shallow grave on the Star Blanket First Nation that month.

Theodore, Bellegarde and Gordon were sentenced to life without eligibility for parole for 25 years.

The two-day hearing in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal started Monday.

Murphy said that based on other trials in Saskatchewan, a case with Indigenous accused and an Indigenous victim requires pause, given racial prejudice that exists in Saskatchewan and Regina specifically. 

He said it's possible jurors held the racist belief that an Indigenous person is more likely to commit violent offences, and argued the Crown and trial judge Justice Catherine Dawson had a duty to ensure a fair trial and an impartial jury.

The judge should have asked the jury about their bias or given the jury meaningful instructions to put such biases aside, Murphy argued. In cases of manifest bias, the judge could have then dismissed the juror. 

"The parties, including the judge, turned a blind eye to these issues and in doing so created an appearance of unfairness at this trial," Murphy said. 

Director of appeals and prosecutor Dean Sinclair, however, argued Monday there were no irregularities in the trial that would support finding a miscarriage of justice. 

Reno Lee was Regina's third homicide victim of 2015. (Regina Court of Queen's Bench)

Sinclair said there is no evidence the jury was partial. 

He argued trial judges don't have the power to question the jury on impartiality unless there is obvious bias.

"It's difficult for the Crown to understand how the appellant, a man who self-identifies as Caucasian, could be prejudiced by the failure of his Aboriginal co-accused to initiate a challenge of cause proceeding to explore racial attitudes of potential jurors about Indigenous people that might be prejudicial towards his co-accused," he said.  

Sinclair also noted all three co-accused were presented with each member of the jury and stated they were content with them as they were sworn in.

2nd lawyer calls jury instructions 'confusing'

Andrew Bellegarde's lawyer Brian Pfefferle's main argument was that the trial judge's charge to the jury was confusing, disorganized, cumbersome and unhelpful. 

He argued the focus was on who did what, rather than what happened and said jurors could "choose their own adventure" to find a pathway to conviction.

The trial took seven weeks in its entirety, from jury selection to guilty finding, according to Pfefferle. 

Sinclair, on the other hand, said the judge did an "extraordinarily good job" condensing the facts for the charge.

The appeal continues Tuesday morning, when Bronson Gordon's lawyer, Christopher Funt, is set to give his argument.