Sudbury

Renee Sweeney murder trial could be held outside of Sudbury— what you need to know about 'change of venue'

Lawyers will argue this week that one of the most anticipated trials in Sudbury history should be held in another city. And a decision from another prominent murder trial from the city's past is likely to be brought up.

Change of venue hearing for Renee Sweeney murder trial set for July 20-21

The lawyers for Steve Wright are arguing that 20 years of news coverage of the Renee Sweeney make it impossible for him to have a fair trial in Sudbury. (Erik White/CBC)

Lawyers will argue this week that one of the most anticipated trials in Sudbury history should be held in another city.

Steve Wright is charged with the 1998 murder of Renee Sweeney, which has not faded from the headlines over the past two decades.

And a decision from another prominent murder trial from the city's past is likely to be brought up as his lawyers argue that he can't get a fair trial in Sudbury. 

Clinton Suzack was charged with murdering Sudbury police Constable Joe MacDonald in a shootout on a residential street in 1993.

Paramedics saved Clinton Suzack, one of the two men later convicted of Joe MacDonald's murder. His lawyers attempted to get the trial moved out of Sudbury and the decision is one of the most often cited in change of venue hearings. (Radio-Canada)

Toronto lawyer Philip Campbell represented him and applied to have the trial moved to another city. 

That was rejected, a Sudbury jury convicted Suzack and that was later upheld in an appeal court, where it was argued that the trial should have been moved.

"That's a completely impossible thing to tell," says Campbell. 

"What I don't know is the climate in which they were deciding the case. I don't know the internal pressure that jurors in a community so badly traumatized feel when they go home and think about the case. The sense they get from their family and friends about what the community expects.

"It's a hard concern to overcome as a possibility."

The 1993 funeral for Sudbury police officer Joe MacDonald was attended by hundreds of people in the city's downtown. (Radio-Canada)

He says the Suzack decision has become one of the most cited in change of venue cases because it is relatively recent and delves into many of the key issues.

Campbell says that includes a "relatively notorious accused," a "very sympathetic victim" who was "beloved in the community," calls for law reform, police reform and even the return of death penalty, all reported on with a "steady drumbeat of media attention on the case."

"You sometimes see courts citing Suzack to say 'Look, in Suzack they did not get a change of venue and the court of appeal upheld it, so probably there isn't even one in this case,'" says Osgoode Hall law professor Palma Pacciocco.

She says judges often take "very granular" looks at media coverage when determining if a trial needs to moved.

Toronto lawyer Philip Campbell represented Clinton Suzack at his Sudbury trial in 1995 and tried to get it moved to another city. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Pacciocco says courts are not looking for jurors who have never heard of the case before, but people who will promise to keep an open mind and make a decision based on the facts presented in court.

"If the exposure is recent and sustained and significant and voluminous and negative, that rachets up the level of concern," she says.

Pacciocco says convincing a judge to move a trial is not easy, especially in the internet age where news coverage is no longer as local as it once was.

Glen Wasyliniuk was a Crown prosecutor in Sault Ste. Marie for nearly 30 years and only had two trials where change of venue came up.

One was a murder case with two accused who were tried separately. So, by the time of the second trial, the evidence from the first trial had been reported extensively and the case was moved to Toronto, where the suspect was convicted.

The other case was in 2008, when an Indigenous woman named Jeanette Niganobe was charged with impaired driving in the death of Sault police Constable Donald Doucet.

There were a lot of racial tensions swirling around the case in Sault Ste. Marie, but the trial was moved to Sudbury because the judge felt the community was still mourning the death of Doucet, with numerous tributes including the naming of a new youth correctional centre in his honour.

For 20 years, the Sudbury police gave regular updates to the public about the Sweeney murder investigation, including sharing images of possible suspects and pieces of evidence. (Sudbury Police)

In the end, the Sudbury jury found that while Niganobe was driving impaired, that she did not cause the car crash that killed Doucet.

Wasyliniuk feels that in most cases a fair trial is possible no matter which courtroom it's held in.

"Now when we start talking about a fair trial, we're not talking about a perfect trial. Or a trial that's the most advantageous for an accused," he says. 

"We're not looking at perfect justice, we're looking at what's called fundamentally fair justice."

While the fairness of the trial is the main issue, there are also logistical concerns with moving a trial, including transportation of the accused, travel expenses for witnesses and inconvenience to the families and others who want to attend.

"Justice shouldn't have a pricetag," says Wasyliniuk.

This crime scene photo shows Renee Sweeney's car parked in front of the Sudbury store where she was stabbed to death in January 1998. (Greater Sudbury Police Service)

Once a judge rules that a trial should be moved, it's the bureaucracy within the justice system that decides where it is to be held, which courthouse has the space and staff to handle such a trial, with the first options usually being neighbouring cities in the same region. 

"We can't have an unfair trial for reasons of convenience," says Pacciocco.

There are other ways to protect the integrity of a jury, including the screening questions potential jurors are asked by judge and lawyers before being selected.

Legal scholars say jurors are expected to have biases, but to ignore them when considering the facts of a case. Trials where that seems unlikely are moved elsewhere. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Campbell feels that this investigation of a potential juror's feelings can be expanded.

"That kind of questioning I think of as quite useful and it is a sort of antidote to prejudicial publicity," he says.

Campbell says some might be tempted to try to limit media coverage of court proceedings before a jury pool can be tainted, but he warns against it. 

"As much as I might lament prejudicial coverage of my client as a defence lawyer, as a Canadian citizen I think the open court principle is of pre-eminent value," says Campbell. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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