On trial for the second-degree murder of Renée Sweeney, the accused took the stand in his own defense March 13.
Robert Steven “Steve” Wright testified today that he was at the video store on Jan. 27, 1998, but that he did not kill Sweeney, who was stabbed 27 times and bled to death. Sweeney was working at the store, which was located in a plaza at 1500 Paris Street.
He was asked by his defense lawyer, Michael Lacy, if he was the man that four Crown eye-witnesses testified they saw: a young man with messy hair, two-days' of facial growth and wire frame glasses.
Lacy asked Wright about the charges he is facing. “You are charged with stabbing Renée Sweeney multiple times on Jan. 27, 1998, causing her death. Did you kill her?”
“I did not,” Wright replied.
Dressed in a burgundy shirt, open two buttons with a white shirt underneath, Wright was already on the stand as the jury came in. He chose to be sworn in on the Bible, rather than be affirmed, an option for all those testifying.
Wright was soft spoken, and within minutes of his testimony beginning, he wept. Wright continued to speak through tears, dabbing his eyes with a tissue and sighing heavily.
“I’m sorry, it still bothers me,” he said as he was asked to begin his testimony.
Lacy asked Wright if he knew Sweeney.
“I did not,” Wright replied.
Lacy asked if Wright knew why she was killed.
“I do not,” replied Wright.
Lacy asked if Wright knew when she was killed.
“I do not,” replied Wright.
“Did you take anything from the store?” Lacy asked.
“I did not,” said Wright.
“Can you tell us why you were running?” Lacy asked.
“I walked into the store and found a deceased person and it overwhelmed me,” said Wright, referring to Sweeney. He cried again and reached for a tissue.
Lacy asked several questions about Wright’s childhood and youth, such as playing football for Lockerby Composite and camping with his family.
Wright testified that he had a happy childhood, with supportive parents, acknowledging them in the courtroom, where they have been everyday.
Then came testimony about the day of the murder.
Though Wright lived in Val Caron, outside of Sudbury’s core, he attended a special science and technology program at Lockerby Composite School and was bussed in each day. Through questioning, Lacy established that Wright’s bus would pick him up between 7:30 and 8 a.m., and he’d take the bus home again at 3 p.m.
On Jan. 27, 1998, Wright had an exam that began at 9 a.m. and ended at 11 a.m. Wright was unable to recall what time he finished the exam.
He testified he had no other exams that day. As for the rest of the day, “I didn’t have a specific plan. I was just going to wait for the bus at three."
When asked to recall what he was wearing, Wright testified that he had been wearing jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and running shoes. He had also been wearing a jacket and gloves.
“It was the jacket that we've seen in the pictures,” Wright said. “I was also wearing those gloves we’ve seen in the pictures.”
Wright said that after his exam he was “trying to decide what to do to waste time until bus pickup so I decided to check the Adults Only Video,” he testified. “I was curious.”
He testified he had bought pornography before, at corner stores, but had not been to this video store previously.
He left the school, he could not recall the time, he said. He had a school bag but decided to leave it in his locker. He testified he walked from Ramsey View Court to Walford, “went up Walford to the intersection of Walford and Paris then South down Paris to the strip mall.”
Wright said the walk took him between five and seven minutes. “I wasn’t in a hurry,” he said. He went alone, he said, as his friends were not at the school that day.
He testified he saw nothing out of the ordinary outside the video store that day, nor could he see in through the windows as they were covered in posters.
Lacy asked his client to tell the jury what he saw.
“When I first went into the store it was quiet,” said Wright. “The first thing I noticed was the videos on the floor.”
While he testified, Lacy showed photos of the interior to the jury. This included one of Sweeney on the floor, after her death.
“When I first came in, I saw the movies. At the time, it reminded me of movie rental places that would reorganize and put movies on the floor, but it was messier,” Wright testified, while weeping.
He said he looked further into the store, and saw “a spill or something, I didn’t recognize what it was.”
Wright said he then moved towards the counter, around the centre racks of the store. It is at this point, he testified, he saw Sweeney.
He was breathing heavily as he spoke on the witness stand, sniffling. Lacy asked if he was okay, he responded that he was.
“When I came around the racks I noticed somebody on the floor,” he testified. “I shouted ‘Hey are you OK?’, but there was no response.”
Wright said he quickly knelt down to repeat his question, “Shaking her left shoulder with my right hand.” He then began crying heavily. “Sorry,” he said.
He was shown an image of Sweeney, and confirmed that she appeared in the photo the way he found her, though he specified that the paper towels on her neck and two plastic bags seen in the photo were not there at the time.
They were placed there by Carol Gosselin and Dr. Krista Jonas, who attempted first aid when they found Sweeney on Jan. 27, 1998.
Wright testified he put his ear next to her mouth to check for breathing. “I couldn’t hear anything,” he said. It was something he learned at Boy Scouts.
He also thought to check for a pulse, he said, and removed his gloves to do so. He noticed then the gloves were blood-soaked, as was his jacket, so he testified he removed them, “threw them aside,” then checked Sweeney’s pulse, which he said he didn’t find.
“I can’t describe what was going through my mind, I was completely overwhelmed at that point,” said Wright. “I just wanted out of there.”
He testified that he was overwhelmed and shaking, and when he didn’t find a pulse, “at that point I stood up and took a step back, steadying myself by grabbing something on the counter or the shelves,” said Wright. “I can’t be specific, at that point I was just freaking out. I wanted to get out of there.”
Lacy questioned him further, and Wright reiterated that he could not recall what he touched to steady himself, nor where he was standing.
Wright testified he does not recall if he touched anything and he does not recall if he moved anything, but he does not dispute that the fingerprints on the cash tray both topside and underside are his.
He also testified that he did not take any cash or items from the store.
Wright said he bent down to collect his jacket and gloves, and it was this moment the door opened, and two people walked in. Those individuals, a male witness and a female witness, testified on Feb. 24 to seeing a man clutching what they thought was a blue bag running from the store. These witnesses called 911.
Wright said he ran past them, without saying a word.
“I was completely freaked out. I just wanted out of there, I just ran,” he said.
“Why?” Asked Lacy.
“I wasn’t thinking,” replied Wright. “I wish now I had stayed. It was the worst decision of my life to run. And I don’t even know if I consciously made that decision.”
Lacy asked Wright if he had an “edged weapon” with him, the only description of the possible murder weapon pathologist Dr. Kelly Uren could provide during his testimony. Wright said he did not.
Lacy asked Wright if he had gone into the bathroom, where forensic officers testified they found shoeprints in blood after they used a chemical called Leucomalachite Green to show what could not be seen by the naked eye.
Wright said he did not enter the bathroom, and that those were not his shoe prints. He testified he did not have Brooks shoes, and that his shoe size is, and was back in 1998, a 12.
Wright testified he recalls leaving the store, and running down the sidewalk in front of it, but other than that, he has no clear memory. He does not recall leaving the jacket and gloves, he testified, nor does he recall the path he took that Oakey and his canine-handler, retired GSPS Sergeant Brian McRury, tracked after Sweeney’s murder. He does not dispute that he took the path and discarded the clothing.
When Lacy asked what he was thinking when he ran, Wright replied “I wasn’t thinking.”
Wright said he does remember entering the parking lot of the former Laurentian Hospital, near to the end of the dog track, thinking of going to a friend’s house on Regent Street, but testified he didn’t want to involve anyone else. “So I followed Regent Street downtown, walked around the mall until the bus to the Valley arrived and I took that home,” referring to the then City Centre mall and Sudbury Transit.
Wright testified when he got off the bus he walked to his house. No one was home. Wright testified he didn’t tell anyone.
“I just wanted to distance myself from the whole thing and forget about it,” said Wright. “It was very traumatizing, and I didn’t want to worry them,” he said, before pausing. “And I was ashamed for not staying.”
Lacy asked if perhaps the reason he ran is that he killed Sweeney.
“I would say that is untrue,” Wright testified. “I ran because I was terrified. I wasn't thinking. I was a stupid kid. I wish I had stayed.”
Lacy finished his questions with Wright. Crown Attorney, Rob Parsons, will begin his cross-examination of Wright tomorrow when court resumes at 10 a.m.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter at Sudbury.com.