SNELSON TRIAL: Lawyers present final arguments in manslaughter trial

Neil George Snelson is charged with one count of manslaughter in the 1993 death of Jennifer Cusworth.

KAMLOOPS - Motive, opportunity and his own lies all point to Neil George Snelson as the person who strangled and beat 19-year-old Jennifer Cusworth to death over 20 years ago in Kelowna, court heard from the Crown during final arguments today, June 15.

Cusworth, an Okanagan Community College student was found in a ditch on Swamp Road Oct.16, 1993, the day after both she and Snelson attended a large house party on Richter Street. She was found clothed, with no defensive wounds to suggest she fought back against her assailant, Crown counsel Iain Currie told the jury in 48-year-old Snelson’s manslaughter trial in Kamloops Supreme Court. She’d been choked by someone’s bare hands, but it was roughly eight blows to the back of her head, likely with something like a tire iron, that killed her. Fluid in her eyes revealed she had a high blood alcohol concentration, about twice the legal limit. There was semen in her vagina, but no sign of trauma to that part of her body.

Cusworth was quite drunk at the party, and when she told her friends of her plans to walk home, they tried to watch over her, knowing the obvious dangers of a young, impaired woman walking home at night, Currie said. Around 4:30 a.m., Cusworth’s friends recall that she became anxious about leaving, likely because she had agreed to babysit her nieces and nephews, who lived about an hour’s walk away, early that morning, Currie said. She never made it there.

“She wasn’t seen alive again,” Currie said.

ALL EVIDENCE POINTS TO SNELSON AS CUSWORTH’S KILLER: CROWN

The first piece of evidence pointing to Snelson as the killer is that no one, save for Snelson himself, knows exactly where he was in the early morning hours of Oct. 16, Currie said. In an intercepted call with his father, Snelson said he drove a few friends home after the party, specifically that he dropped two women off first, and then a man. This was a lie, Currie said. Snelson later said in a police questionnaire that he dropped the friends off in the opposite order, a more logical driving route, as well as one that would put him closer to where Cusworth was walking home, Currie said, suggesting he didn’t want his father to know the route he actually took.

“Another person who was alone in Kelowna at that part of the morning was Jennifer Cusworth,” Currie said.

Snelson’s then-wife worked until 3 a.m. at a nightclub and testified she didn’t recall anything unusual about the morning of Oct. 16. Her routine after getting home was to go to bed and get up around 11 a.m. or noon the next day. She couldn’t remember when her husband got home, what mood he was in, or if there was anything strange about his behaviour.

Swamp Road, where Cusworth was found, is about 10-15 minutes away from the party. It was a place Snelson knew well, as he and his wife went for drives there.

“Knowledge of Swamp Road is just another trait Mr. Snelson shares with Jennifer Cusworth’s killer,” Currie said.

A witness driving by around 6:30 to 7 a.m. saw a truck on the side of the road. It stuck in his memory because there wasn’t much traffic on that particular road. Realizing the importance of his observation, he reported it to police in December of 1993, describing the vehicle as a white truck with a canopy. Photos from the time show Snelson had a brown truck, which had a canopy on it at least some of the time. During a taped conversation with his father, Snelson made a point of telling his dad that he never liked canopies, and never had one on his truck.

“Why would Mr. Snelson volunteer what was an untruth?” Currie said.

Currie questioned who, other than Cusworth’s killer, would know there was some significance to having a canopy on his truck. Just as the man driving by noticed a truck with a canopy on it, Cusworth’s killer could have seen someone driving by, Currie said.

Something else Snelson was aware of was a belt. He told police he returned one to a girl at the party. Cusworth was wearing a belt that night, and it was found in some bushes near her body — the only clothing, except for a pair of earrings, not on her. The belt was not included in a series of photos released to the media after her death — only the killer would know the significance of it, Currie said.

During a police interview, Snelson said he hooked up with two women at the party, and had unprotected sex with one of them. Cusworth had distinct curly blond hair and was wearing a patterned shirt that night; things that would be hard not to notice, Currie said. But when police showed him photos of Cusworth, he said he didn’t know her, had never talked to her, and never seen her before. His DNA proved otherwise.

“It is not speculation to say there is only one person in the world with an identifiable motive to kill Jennifer Cusworth, and the one person with an identifiable motive is the one who’s semen was found inside (her),” Currie said.

It was Snelson’s semen that was found inside Cusworth as she lay dead on the side of the road. That the two had sex is not in question, it’s where they did and when that’s important. Either it happened at the party — which friends say was not possible because they were watching her — or when they crossed paths later that night. Currie argued there was no opportunity at the party for a stranger to to “woo” and “seduce” Cusworth into having unprotected sex with him. All the evidence, Currie said, points to Snelson crossing paths with Cusworth after the party, when both were alone and unaccounted for.

Jennifer Cusworth
Jennifer Cusworth
Image Credit: Contributed

NOTHING LINKING SNELSON TO CUSWORTH’S DEATH: DEFENCE

Defence lawyer Richard Fowler cast doubt over the Crown’s argument, saying there is no definitive proof linking Snelson to Cusworth’s death. Fowler said there is no evidence explaining when Cusworth was assaulted, where she was killed, what she was killed with, or when her body was left on Swamp Road. He told the jury tire marks at the scene were never connected to Snelson’s vehicle, as was the case with footprints left in the area. He said the man driving by on Swamp Road was correct in his initial statement that the vehicle he saw was white, not brown, as Snelson’s was.

Fowler also argued against against the Crown’s claim there was no opportunity for Snelson and Cusworth to have sex at the party. Given the volume of people there, between 150 and 200, and their conditions, he said it was quite possible for Snelson and Cusworth to slip off together and have sex. He also pointed out that court heard testimony from only six of the party-goers.

When asked in a police interview whether there was any reason his DNA might be found at the crime scene, Snelson said, ‘No, no, I don’t think so.” Fowler said the seemingly uncertain response was a figure of speech, not an expression of guilt. He added Snelson’s DNA was not at the crime scene; it was in and on Cusworth.

Fowler also said Snelson’s whereabouts were accounted for the morning of Oct. 16. He said Snelson went to meet friends for breakfast at Denny’s. They ended up missing each other, and Snelson called his friend the next morning asking where they’d been.

“How on earth would Snelson know (he) had not been at Denny’s unless he had not in fact gone there?” Fowler said.

After dropping off some friends, and stopping by Denny’s to meet others, Snelson went home, arriving there about 5 a.m. where his wife didn’t notice anything unusual, Fowler said. She didn’t notice him acting agitated, or rushing to wash blood off his clothes, Fowler said, adding whoever killed Cusworth would have gotten blood on them.

“Someone unknown was undoubtedly violently assaulting Ms. Cusworth (as) Mr. Snelson was either on his way home, or at home,” Fowler said.

He also pointed out Cusworth looks quite different in a pair of photos shown to Snelson, and argued he might not have recognized her as the same woman he had sex with.

“You have not heard a single piece of evidence that contradicts Mr. Snelson’s account of his whereabouts that morning,” Fowler said.

Snelson’s whereabouts are accounted for, Fowler said — it’s what happened to Cusworth that remains a mystery.

“We only know it was horrifying,” Fowler said.

“Your job is not to solve this awful crime, (or) to fill the void with guesses or speculation. You must uphold your oath to determine whether the evidence you’ve heard convinces you beyond a reasonable doubt Mr. Snelson was responsible for killing Ms. Cusworth,” Fowler said.

The jury is scheduled to finish getting final instructions from Justice Dev Dley tomorrow, June 16. This is Snelson's second trial. 

To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at chelston@infonews.ca or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

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