Robert Steven Wright will serve 12 years of a life sentence before he is eligible for parole for the 1998 murder of Renée Sweeney.
Wright was convicted of second-degree murder March 29 for the stabbing death of Sweeney, who was killed in her workplace on Jan. 27, 1998. He has been incarcerated since his arrest in 2018.
The courtroom at the Sudbury Courthouse was full on June 29, but held less people than at peak times in the trial, especially the days that Wright testified on his own behalf, telling the court he was at the store, but did not kill Sweeney. He said he panicked, and ran.
Several members of the jury were again in the gallery, as were several supporters of Wright and his family as he was led into the courtroom. Wearing a grey-checked shirt, Wright’s beard was significantly longer than at his last appearance.
In his decision, Justice Robbie Gordon began by stating he felt the effects of the victim impact statements, given along with counsel submissions at the May 19 hearing. These submissions came from prosecutor Rob Parsons and Kevin Ludgate, and defence co-counsel Michael Lacy and Bryan Badali. Some victim impact statements were read to the court, others submitted to the judge for consideration.
“I went through this trial, heard from every witness, saw the photos. I know that the last minutes of Ms. Sweeney’s life were filled with terror,” he said. “She was young and alone, facing a man with a knife and nowhere to run, stabbed time and time again.”
He said the defensive wounds made it clear she fought for her life.
“Her life shouldn’t have been taken from her, she shouldn’t have been taken from her family, her community.”
He said he learned from the statements what a “wonderful person Sweeney was,” of the “gifted young women, a caring daughter, sister and friend with so much to offer the world.”
Gordon said if these words were all he had to consider, “my job would be an easy one.”
He then detailed what he called the “aggregating and mitigating factors” that went into his decision. Aggregating would add time to the parole eligibility decision, mitigating would reduce time.
As well, Gordon said he needed to ensure that “the principle of parity” was considered, in that any decision would be in line with other cases that had “similar offenders, similar offences, and similar circumstances.”
The violence of the murder, as well as the impact of the murder on the community and family were considerations he said, but also, Wright’s actions and character in the years since the murder.
“This can’t be based on emotion or vengeance,” he said.
He noted that Wright had no involvement with the justice system in the years since the murder, had amiable and prosocial relationships and that as he was 18 years old, his actions were consistent with “a young man in panic mode.”
Gordon said he also considered the length and conditions of Wright’s pre-sentence custody, the four-and-a-half years he spent in jail before his trial began with jury selection on Feb. 21.
Gordon said Wright would serve 12 years of his life sentence before he would be eligible for parole, that he had a lifetime ban on firearms, his DNA must remain on file, and he must not contact any witnesses or Sweeney family members and loved ones.
After the decision was announced and Gordon left the court, most of the gallery remained as the lawyers spoke to the families.
Several shouts could be heard from the Sweeney side of the courtroom, with several supporters hurling insults at Wright.
At one point, a Wright supporter spoke to a Sweeney family friend and asked her not to shout. The family friend responded, “Did you not see those photos?” referring to the crime scene and autopsy photos shown in court.
As the families prepared to leave the courtroom, the Wright family and the Sweeney family were physically separated from one another by a line of Greater Sudbury Police officers. Both sides left quickly.
Though the Crown would not speak with the media, defence counsel told Sudbury.com there would be an appeal.
“I think there is significant grounds for an appeal,” said Lacy. “It’s not a fair trial in Sudbury. I don’t think he had a fair trial in this jurisdiction.”
Lacy will not be handling the appeal, he said, but told reporters it would be led by Joseph Wilkinson of Wilkinson Legal in Toronto.
The Sweeney family was clearly disappointed with the 12 years, a different mood than after the verdict.
Rather than speaking with the media, Kim Sweeney, sister of the victim, issued a statement.
In it, she thanked victim services, the police and Crown attorneys for helping her get through what she called “the hardest time of my life.”
She also thanked her community.
“I am forever grateful to this wonderful community that I call home. You have never forgotten my sister Renée,” she said. “This process is finally over, but the pain of losing Renée will never go away. Knowing that there is finally justice for my sister makes it a little easier.”
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com.