KELOWNA - Neil Snelson has once again been convicted of manslaughter in the death of a college student more than 20 years ago but be prepared: His next stay in prison will likely be short — if he goes back to prison at all.
The decision by a Kamloops jury shortly before 10 p.m. June 17 ended not only a 22-year-old murder case, but a six-year legal saga through three courtrooms in three cities that leaves one big mess to be sorted out. Because while these jurors made the final determination, the real work was done by the jury in his first trial.
You probably already know about the crime; it was hard to escape. Jean and Terry Cusworth made perrenial news hits around the Okanagan and the province, refusing to let the case go cold, making sure their daughter Jennifer’s name remained top of mind until they got answers.
Jennifer, 19, was drinking at an after hours party on Richter Street in October, 1993. Heavily intoxicated, she tried to walk home alone but was found in a ditch on Swamp Road the next morning. She was beaten to death, partially strangled and probably raped.
While it took 16 years for police to make the arrest and conclude the investigation, the legal process dragged on another six years.
His first trial in 2011 ended in an improbable result. Given the circumstances, the expectation was the jury could return a verdict of first degree murder (if they found it was a homicide involving sexual assault) or second degree murder, which is a deliberate but unplanned killing — or not guilty.
Somehow the jury found him guilty of manslaughter, which is homicide without an intention to cause death—improbable because she was beaten to death and her body showed signs of strangulation. Some lawyers who watched the case were astounded and privately guessed the jury was stuck somewhere between first degree murder and not guilty, then chose to split the difference and found for manslaughter.
The decision was later overturned by the court of appeal in October 2011 because the jury heard prejudicial evidence, but the jury’s decision would not change: Snelson could only be tried for manslaughter, which has no minimum sentence — sentences range from probation to life imprisonment.
He was sentenced to 15 years before it was set aside.
Crown prosecutor Iain Currie won’t say yet, and possibly doesn’t know yet what he will recommend to Justice Dev Dley for sentencing. A lot of factors are taken into account, including a comparison of sentences handed down for similar offences.
Perhaps the bigger factor in sentencing is how the court calculates the amount of time Snelson has spent in custody. It’s not as simple as it sounds.
He was arrested in October 2009 and remained in custody until last June or four years and eight months. Under normal circumstances, the court may give two-for-one credit for every day spent in custody prior to conviction because it's considered harder time or "dead time". That could work out to 9.3 years already served, meaning if he was sentenced to 15 years, he could be out on parole in two years or one-third of his sentence. If he's sentenced to ten years, he could serve his time in a provincial institution and be home for Christmas.
Currie has, however, indicated he may argue a different interpretation, that not all of Snelson's time served was pre-trial; a portion of it was served under normal prison conditions, not dead time. He calculates that at around eight years credit for custody.
The only thing that is clear is his sentence will likely be shorter than the time it took for him to be convicted and far shorter than the time it took for police to catch him.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Marshall Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-718-2724.