A jury started deliberating Monday afternoon on whether Neil Snelson raped and killed a teenager 18 years ago, or if he just had the misfortune of anonymous sex with a girl who met a tragic end.
Defence lawyer Grant Gray was the first to offer closing arguments in the final moments of Snelson’s murder trial, which brought a standing room only crowd to the Kelowna courthouse.
Over the course of 30 minutes, Gray told jurors to focus on what he called, a “lack of evidence” of anything other than sex, rather than the murder narrative Crown counsel pieced together over the three-week trial.
“When you consider the evidence and what Crown considers suspicious…it’s all consistent with a man who thinks, ‘What if it was Jennifer Cusworth I had sex with?’” said Gray. “And a man who is afraid that police and Crown would jump to the conclusion that if he had sex with her, maybe he killed her.”
That is the conclusion investigators pursued in 2009 when Snelson’s DNA was matched to a semen sample recovered from Cusworth shortly after Oct. 17, 1993, when her body was discovered face-down in a ditch on Swamp Road. She had been strangled, but ultimately died from multiple blows to the head.
Although Snelson now concedes he must have had sex with Cusworth, he claims he didn’t know it was her until recently. In fact, he didn’t remember anything about her, other than their encounter was consensual at the Richter Street party where she was last seen.
He testified last week that he went home following their fling, after dropping off some friends, and never really thought of it, or her, again.
Memory gaps about details that seem quite crystallized to other witnesses, have opened the 44-year-old to be portrayed as a liar, but Gray said that’s far from the case.
“He couldn’t remember more,” he said, explaining it was reasonable to not know much of a “fleeting encounter” 16 years earlier.
Snelson went home to his then wife, said Gray, and what caused Cusworth’s death happened later, at the hands of someone else.
Gray wanted jurors to believe that Snelson should be cleared because Cusworth lived 12 hours after the party— a possible scenario, testified pathologists— stretching out her night of drinking.
Crown counsel Iain Currie, however, spent 2.5 hours telling a different story. Not only is it unlikely that the studious Okanagan College student would have dropped out of her life and shirked her responsibilities to keep partying, the evidence points to another scenario.
“One person in the entire world who had a motive to kill Jennifer Cuswoth,” he said. “That person is Neil George Snelson and that motive is sex.”
Cusworth, said Currie, ended her night at around 4 a.m., which was when all 12 party-goers who testified they last saw her.
She was headed to her friends’ place on Bernard Avenue, and at around 4:30 a.m., she was taken off course.
One woman testified she heard hysterical screams “after the bar crowd” and another entered a statement that corroborated that account.
Currie said it makes sense that it was Cusworth who was screaming and Snelson was the cause.
Cusworth, he argued, never had sex with Snelson at the party.
Numerous friends and witnesses attested to her whereabouts throughout the night and, he argued, she was never absent for long, or seen with the accused.
He would have had sex with Cusworth, he said, shortly before she died and her body told the story.
A high volume of seminal fluid stayed with Cusworth when she was found in the ditch. Generally, pathologists testified, it takes 20 to 25 minutes for that fluid to drain from a woman’s body after it’s been deposited.
“(She) had it in her vagina at the time she died,” Currie said, noting that to avoid gravity, she would have had to stay still, on her back.
“The only rational conclusion is that Jennifer Cusworth was not upright for long after intercourse.”
The semen still inside her, he said, provides the link in time to sex and murder. The jury started its deliberations at around 4:30 p.m., Monday.