New trial in 1993 Kelowna, B.C., cold case
VANCOUVER - British Columbia's highest court has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of killing a college student whose death remained a cold case for nearly two decades.
Neil Snelson was convicted of manslaughter two years ago in the death of 19-year-old Jennifer Cusworth, who was beaten and strangled after attending a house party in Kelowna, B.C., in October 1993.
Snelson 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.
At one point, when asked by the officer whether he would plead guilty to Cusworth's death, Snelson replied: "I haven't made that decision yet."
At the trial, the Crown argued Snelson's response â€” that he hadn't yet decided how he would plead â€” 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.
But Snelson's lawyer appealed, arguing the accused was merely asserting his right to silence, which cannot be used against him.
The B.C. Appeal Court agreed in a unanimous decision released Thursday.
"The statement had no probative value and was highly prejudicial, as it is 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.
"In my opinion, it should not have been admitted into evidence."
Even after the statement was admitted â€” incorrectly â€” Bennett said the judge should have told the jury that "no inference of guilt could be drawn from the exercise of the right to counsel," but that didn't happen.
Consequently, the Appeal Court set aside Snelson's conviction and ordered a new trial.
Cusworth's body was found in a ditch in a rural area of Kelowna on Oct. 17, 1993. She had been beaten and strangled, and investigators also found semen, indicating she had sex close to her time of death.
Two days earlier, Cusworth attended a house party with about 200 other people, many of them drinking and some using marijuana or cocaine.
At some point during the party, Cusworth wanted to leave and became angry when one of her friends wasn't ready to go, the trial heard. She walked out of the house in the early morning hours and was never seen alive again.
When confronted with DNA evidence, Snelson acknowledged he must have had sex with Cusworth the night of the party, but he denied killing her.
Snelson, a father of four who is now nearly 50 years old, was initially charged with first-degree murder.
A jury convicted him of manslaughter after two days of deliberations.