Sudbury·Updated

Judge says accused Renee Sweeney killer should be tried in Sudbury

The man accused of stabbing Renee Sweeney to death has lost his bid to have the murder trial moved outside of Sudbury.

Judge says it's wrong for the public to assume that 'DNA evidence proves all'

Renee Sweeney was stabbed to death in January 1998 while working in a store in Sudbury. (Supplied)

The man accused of stabbing Renee Sweeney to death has lost his bid to have the murder trial moved outside of Sudbury.

In a decision issued Thursday, Justice Gregory Ellies dismissed the defence lawyers' arguments that the trial should be held in Toronto.

"I am not satisfied that there is a fair and reasonable likelihood of widespread partiality or prejudice in the Sudbury area," he wrote.

The evidence presented at the change-of-venue hearing held in June was covered by a publication ban, as is much of the judge's decision.

Justice Ellies considered hundreds of media articles on the Renee Sweeney murder from 1998 submitted by the defence, including many since the arrest of Wright in December 2018. 

"However, I am not persuaded that a story or two per year about the killing over those 17 years should weigh much in favour of a change of venue," the judge wrote.

"Publicity like this is very common following the arrest of someone for a notorious crime."

Social media comments were also entered into evidence, some which Ellies found "disturbing" and others that he believes show the "presumption of innocence is alive and well within the pool of prospective jurors in Sudbury."

"Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that many people assume that because the police have charged a person with a crime, that person must be guilty," he said. 

"Of course, it is fundamentally wrong to assume that an accusation is true just because it has been made. It is also wrong to assume that DNA evidence proves all, especially in a case in which the DNA used to compare to that of Mr. Wright was seized 20 years before Mr. Wright was charged."

Steve Wright, 41, is accused of stabbing Renee Sweeney to death in 1998 when he was 18. (Facebook)

The defence also argued that the very fact Wright was asking for his trial to be moved out of Sudbury would taint the jury pool, which Ellies also disagreed with. 

"I do not accept that potential jurors will become prejudiced or partial against an accused simply because they found out that he was fearful they already were," he wrote. 

"I believe that someone whose partiality is challenged will respond by trying to show that it should not have been."

The defence commissioned a professional polling company to conduct a survey showing "that many of those people surveyed have already made up their minds that Mr. Wright is guilty."

But while many of his specific reasons are covered by a publication ban, Ellies found the survey "suffers from a number of weaknesses."

A judge says the Renee Sweeney murder trial should be held in Sudbury, but says if COVID-19 makes that difficult, it could be moved elsewhere in the northeast. (Gino Donato/CBC)

The judge found no legal reason to move the trial out of Sudbury, but he noted that it could happen anyway because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

While courthouses in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and North Bay have re-opened, they have yet to stage a jury trial.

Ellies noted that some jury trials in southern Ontario were held in rented conference rooms in order to follow safety protocols and allow for courts to hear other cases that have been delayed during the pandemic. 

"This means that the trial in this case may be moved from Sudbury to another judicial centre in order to ensure the timely disposition of all of the outstanding cases in our region," he wrote.

The judge said that if he wishes to move the trial because of the pandemic, it would be to another location in northeastern Ontario — and he would listen to more arguments from defence and Crown attorneys before making his decision. 

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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