Neil Snelson got an early Christmas present and Jennifer Cusworth's family is reeling after the province's highest court gave him a new trial for manslaughter.
The man convicted two years ago of killing Cusworth, a 19-year-old college student, in 1993 won his appeal of the conviction. In a decision released Thursday, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled the trial judge was wrong to allow a statement Snelson gave police into evidence.
Jennifer Watson, a close friend of Cusworth who organized a Facebook group devoted to the case, was rocked by the court's decision.
"Really? A new trial? And now it all starts again," she said in a post. "Ugh. Amazing how one moment can take the wind out of your sails."
Cusworth's body was dumped in a ditch off Swamp Road in Kelowna in October 1993. She'd been beaten and strangled after attending a crowded house party on Richter Street the night before.
The case remained cold for 16 years. Snelson, now 47, was charged in 2009 after DNA evidence revealed he had sex with Cusworth the night she died. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The Crown presented the jury with a statement Snelson made to police after his arrest, in which he repeatedly told an investigator he had been instructed by his lawyer not to say anything.
When asked by the officer whether he would plead guilty to Cusworth's death the following Monday, Snelson replied: "I haven't made that decision yet."
At the trial, the Crown argued Snelson's response indicated he was guilty, since an innocent person would never say such a thing. The Crown urged the jury to come to the same conclusion.
Snelson's lawyer, Wade Jenson, argued Snelson was just asserting his right to silence, which can't be used against him.
The statement had no relevant value, and the prejudicial effect was overwhelming because it would lead the jury to speculate he contemplated pleading guilty days later.
"I asked the judge to conclude that it was his frustrated means to rebuff the interrogator who'd spent nine to 10 hours with him," Jenson said Thursday. "I feel vindicated by the Court of Appeal."
In a unanimous decision, the three judges ruled Snelson's statement was "easily misinterpreted when taken out of the context of the interview as a whole and Mr. Snelson's continual assertions of his rights," wrote Justice Elizabeth Bennett.
Even after the statement was admitted "incorrectly," Bennett said Justice Alison Beames should have told the jury that "no inference of guilt could be drawn from the exercise of the right to counsel," but didn't.
Snelson, a married father of four, has been in custody since his arrest in 2009. He would have been eligible for full parole in August 2015. He has not applied for bail. His case is set for B.C. Supreme Court in Kelowna on Jan. 6 to set a new date.
Jenson said he hadn't spoken to Snelson since the decision.
- With files from The Canadian Press