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Snelson returns to Kelowna courtroom

Neil George Snelson appeared in a Kelowna courtroom Monday, for the first time since 2011 when he was sentenced for  manslaughter.

Noticeably weathered, but smiling at supporters who gathered, Snelson took a seat in the prisoner's box as lawyers lined up details for his new trial, looking into the killing of Jennifer Cusworth.

And returning that smile was one unlikely candidate, who had also settled into a familiar place in the courtroom.

"I know he's not going anywhere," said Jean Cusworth, Jennifer's mother, explaining her reaction. "I'm confident we're going to see justice for Jennifer."

The Cusworths have closely followed the investigation into what was once considered one of Kelowna's most long-standing cold case investigations.

They were the first to learn there was an arrest and they were front and centre during the lengthy trial that  put a microscope on their daughter and her 1993 death.

So, just two years after that trial, when the Court of Appeal set aside Snelson's  manslaughter conviction because of an error made by the trial judge, they weren't totally shocked.

"It shook us a bit," she said.

"But we've been overwhelmed by people who have approached us wanting justice for Jennifer. Strangers, convicted criminals— they all want justice for Jennifer. This is just a blip in the road."

When asked how she felt about a potential change of venue, Cusworth wasn't ruffled either.

"Doing it in the Lower Mainland may make it difficult for witnesses," she said.

Otherwise, she said, a venue change shouldn't make a difference.

The B.C. Court of Appeal set aside Neil George Snelson's manslaughter conviction last month because of an error made by the trial judge.  In particular, the trial judge allowed the jury to hear a portion of Snelson's interview with RCMP,  which the appeal courts felt was prejudicial.

According to transcripts released in the appeal document, once in custody, Snelson  held a long conversation with Sgt Peter Tewfik,  where he repeatedly declined to make a comment about his circumstances. In some moments he was silent, in others he would explain he was waiting for his lawyer.

Then the following exchanged played out.

"…You keep talkin’ about what’s gonna happen, you know, that you’re gonna bring closure to this. Is, is your intention to plead guilty then?" said Sgt. Peter Tewfik.

"I haven’t made that decision yet. I gotta talk to my lawyer about what, what I want to do," said Snelson.

The Crown was able to get that statement before the jury by arguing it was relevant to the issue of guilt, and "inconsistent with innocence."

But Snelson's lawyer argued after the fact that the prejudicial effect of the statement clearly outweighs any probative value, and the appeal court sided with him.

"Once the statement was admitted and the Crown sought an inference of guilt from the content of the statement, the trial judge had an obligation to instruct the jury that no inference of guilt could be drawn from the exercise of the right to counsel," read the decision by Justice Elizabeth Bennett that was released Thursday.

"Instead, the trial judge reviewed the evidence as part of the theory of the defence, endorsing the Crown’s proposed use of the evidence, and compounding the error in law."

That piece of evidence was one of three pillars on which the Crown rested its case, and without it the verdict may have been different, they said.

Cusworth, who was 19 at the time of her death, was a first year college student.

She was last seen alive at an October house party, following a night of drinking.

Her body was found two days later in a ditch off Swamp Road. She had been strangled and bludgeoned to death. Snelson's DNA was found in the body.

Snelson will return to court Feb. 3.

 

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