One of the most high profile murder trials in Kelowna’s history ended Thursday with Neil Snelson being found guilty of manslaughter.
The jury of six men and six women filed into the courtroom after nearly three days of deliberations, averting eye contact with murder victim Jennifer Cusworth’s parents, who were sitting in the front row as they had been throughout the trial.
Snelson, they announced once assembled, was not guilty of first degree murder—the conviction the Crown was pursuing—but guilty of the lesser charge.
It was a verdict that prompted an immediate outburst of gasps and sobs from a crowd that continually assembled in the courtroom over the three week trial.
Jean and Terry Cusworth appeared shaken, but strong. Snelson had a similar reaction.
“The jury was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that (Snelson’s) actions killed (Cusworth),” said defence lawyer Grant Gray, of the “unanticipated” verdict that puzzled both him and his client’s family.
“What the jury was not satisfied with, beyond a reasonable doubt, was that he had the intent to kill or cause her bodily harm.”
Alcohol could have been the intent-removing factor that prompted the jury to turn to manslaughter, as Justice Alison Beames made mention of it during her Monday instructions to the jury. Although, from the get-go, the case against Snelson suffered from 16 years of going cold.
Cusworth’s body was found in a Swamp Road ditch, Oct. 17, 1993. An autopsy showed she’d been manually strangled, but ultimately died from numerous blows to the head from a cylindrical object, which pathologists suspected may have been a tire-iron. Evidence of sexual activity was also present.
In the days and months following the grim discovery, witnesses offered everything from statements to DNA samples in an attempt to solve the crime, but it amounted to 800-plus tips that led nowhere.
Snelson, it turned out, was missing piece of the puzzle.
The now 44-year-old had never offered his DNA and that put him among a list of 100-plus names of those who had been at the party Cusworth was last seen, but failed to offer DNA samples or alibis that ruled them out of the investigation.
That list, in time, was whittled down to seven— two of whom still lived in Kelowna and others who lived farther away—and police went about getting a cast-off DNA sample from each of them. .
By luck of the draw, Snelson, who still lived ini the city, was one of the first police tried to gain a sample from. Unlike others, however, he spotted them and knowingly evaded their efforts.
In time that prompted the investigation to go a different route. And police eventually procured a warrant in the summer of 2009 that forced him to submit DNA.
He became the prime suspect and the investigation focused on whether he could be held accountable for her murder, as they then already knew the two had sex.
For his part, Snelson said he had anonymous sex with a woman at the party, then he drove a few friends home and went to bed with his wife.
By his foggy recollection, it would have happened midway into a party that took place between 2 a.m. and sunrise. He didn’t remember the girl, or ever think of her in the years that followed, he said.
He claimed during the trial that it wasn’t until police started talking publicly about DNA evidence in Jennifer Cusworth’s cold case murder file, that he entertained the question of “what if” she was who he had sex with.
When witnesses took the stand all these years later, the likelihood that Cusworth had sex at the party with a man she had never met seemed to dissipate and an image of Snelson as someone who had a very loose grasp on the truth emerged.
Around 12 partygoers had been called in by Crown counsels Iain Currie and Dione Pizzey to speak to Cusworth’s whereabouts over the course of the party.
Whether she was on the couch in the front room, or walking around the party with her arm looped around a friend, someone offered testimony about where the young woman spent her last hours.
It wasn’t until around 4 to 4:30 a.m., that she disappeared from sight, only to turn up a day later in a ditch on Swamp Road.
The Crown’s case also focused on incongruences. Snelson told different stories to investigators and family members about seemingly inane details, like where he parked the night of the party. Or, the order he drove his friends home.
A brown 1978 GMC truck he would have driven the night of the party was one particular point of contention.
In a legally taped conversation with his father, Snelson said he never had a canopy and that he hated them. Photos from his ex-wife showed that he did indeed have a canopy on his truck. In a conversation with his sister, Snelson said he wasn’t even sure he had a truck.
There was also an issue about a belt.
Snelson said from the start that his first memory of the party was returning a belt to a friend. That friend testified that she never wore belts, and she certainly didn’t have one returned to her the night of the party.
Crown Iain Currie proved he was a liar, but murder was something else altogether. No murder weapon was brought forth, and the truck that had been such a bone of contention, had long since disappeared.
In closing arguments, however, Currie offered an argument that closed the gap between the two having sex and Snelson being involved with her death.
He explained that the volume of seminal fluid found in Jennifer Cusworth at the time of the death could have only remained in that proportion if she hadn’t moved after sex. Currie argued that it would have left her body had she been able to walk around after the encounter, and that closed the gap between her sexual encounter and time of death to a window of 20 to 25 minutes.
Neither Snelson’s or Cusworth’s family wanted to speak about the verdict, immediately after it was rendered.
The Cusworths will make a statement this afternoon while a representative from Snelson’s church issued a written statement on Thursday: “Our objective as a church community is to come together to support each other,” said Keith Reisdorf, pastor of the First Lutheran Church.
“And we trust our faith will carry our congregation and all those involved through this.”
Snelson will appear in court again Oct. 11 to fix a date for a pre-sentence hearing. A manslaughter conviction carries a wide range of sentencing, from a suspended sentence to life in prison.