Accused Renee Sweeney killer has now spent 4 years in jail awaiting trial
After many delays, Steven Wright, now 43, set to stand trial Feb. 21
It has now been four years since Sudbury Police arrested a man and accused him of murdering Renee Sweeney in 1998.
Steven Wright, who was 18 at the time of the murder and is now 43, has spent those years behind bars, waiting for his day in court.
"You know there is a piece of closure, a piece of satisfaction, but we know there is long work ahead of us," Greater Sudbury Police Chief Paul Pedersen told reporters hours following the arrest on Dec. 11, 2018.
In the past four years, Wright has spent a lot of time in court, both virtually and in the Sudbury Courthouse, on the slow march toward his murder trial.
There have been three bail hearings, a change of venue hearing where the defence unsuccessfully tried to move the trial out of Sudbury, there was a hearing to discuss conflict of interest allegations against one of Wright's lawyers, which eventually led to a change of defence counsel and delays while his new legal team got up to speed.
And there were also delays due to COVID-19, which Wright contracted in the Sudbury jail last year, seeing him transferred to a hospital in Toronto for a brief period.
The Supreme Court's Jordan decision has set deadlines of 30 months for a Superior Court matter like a murder charge to make it to trial, but that's only in the case of "unreasonable delay."
"I don't know what the record is, but that is indeed a very long time," Osgoode Hall law professor Palma Paciocco said of Wright's four years in pre-trial custody.
"Unfortunately it's not unheard of."
She says since 2004, the majority of people incarcerated in provincial jails are not convicted and serving their sentences, but are "presumptively innocent" prisoners awaiting trial.
"In 2014-15, on an average day, 57 per cent of adults in provincial and territorial jails were waiting trial, which was a sixfold increase from the previous decade," Paciocco said.
She said that pattern was definitely disrupted by the pandemic, when the justice system made a concerted effort to keep people out of jails, where public health measures were difficult to enforce, but the latest data is not yet available.
"Understandably we don't want to release people who may pose a public safety risk or who may not return to court to face trial," said Paciocco, adding that she gets the sense that more and more judges are becoming "overly cautious" about who needs to be detained before trial.
"And once that becomes increasingly the norm in a given jurisdiction and the expectation, then you'll expect to see that practice snowball."
Sara-Jane Berghammer, the CEO of the local John Howard Society, says most of the people in the Sudbury jail have not been convicted.
"So if they're innocent until proven guilty, why are we holding so many people? When they can be properly supervised in the community until they go to court," she said.
"Custody should be a last resort."
Berghammer says releasing accused killers can be a "tough sell" for the general public.
"We always should think of the 'What if?" she said.
"We shouldn't undermine how much suffering happens when people are in jail, especially when they're not convicted. They're just waiting."
There is no official process in Ontario for compensating an accused person who is locked up before trial and then found not guilty.
There are European countries who have such a system and in Canada there have been civil lawsuits against the justice system along those lines.
Sudbury woman Melissa Sheridan recently filed a lawsuit against the police and court system for $8 million after she was charged with the murder of her ex-husband in 2020, spent a month in jail before being released on bail and only for the charges to be dropped in the summer of 2022.
Her lawyer is Michael Lacy, the same man now heading up Steven Wright's defence team.
"There should be compensation. Because it's a traumatic experience. Going through the court system is not quick," said Berghammer.
"There should be compensation. For sure."
But Christine Mainville, a Toronto lawyer and director of the Criminal Lawyers' Association of Ontario, says it isn't that simple.
"If you're acquitted, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're innocent or the process was unwarranted," she said.
"A lot of people might argue the process played out as it should. As in, if there wasn't sufficient evidence to convict you and you were acquitted, then the process worked."
Mainville said it would be different if it's found that "something was withheld or a decision wasn't made appropriately."
She feels the "fundamental problem" is how much the courts are relying on incarcerating someone before their trial.
"The Supreme Court has time and time again made clear that that has to be the exception not the rule," Mainville said.
The trial of Steven Wright is currently scheduled for six weeks beginning Feb. 21, which comes less than a month after the 25th anniversary of Renee Sweeney's murder.