KAMLOOPS - It took two trials and nearly 22 years for the case and the jail doors to close on Jennifer Cusworth’s killer, but it will only be one year and seven months before his release.
Neil George Snelson, 48, was sentenced to 11 years today, Sept. 16, in Kamloops Supreme Court. Since he was detained in 2009, Snelson accumulated nine years and three months while in custody.
Cusworth's family and Snelson's supporters packed a courtroom to hear Justice Dev Dley announce his sentence, which drew gasps and shock from Cusworth's family and friends.
In a previous trial, Snelson received 15 years.
"That is garbage," Cusworth's mother Jean said outside the courtroom. "(The judge) calls a higher sentence revenge. No, it's justice. The justice system is badly flawed."
The duration of Snelson’s prison term hinged on Crown proving there was a sexual assault committed before Cusworth was killed, but Dley said there was insufficient evidence to prove the attack.
“The only conclusion I can reach is that there was intercourse between the parties. It may have been consensual and there may have been a sexual assault,” he said.
In a previous hearing, Crown prosecutor Iain Currie outlined a theory of how Cusworth was sexually assaulted and drew on past evidence from a previous trial in which Justice Alison Beames handed Snelson 15 years.
“The sentencing decision in the first trial is helpful… however the findings of fact are not to be served as a guide in the findings of fact in the re-trial,” Dley said. “It would be wrong to embark on a fact finding exercise.”
Despite no proof of the sexual assault, Dley said an aggravating circumstance of the case was the savagery and violence of the attack.
"The sheer brutality and violence of this killing brings it much closer to murder than an accidental death,” he said.
Further aggravating factors were Snelson’s random choice of victim; he and Cusworth had no history. He noted the lengths Snelson went to dispose of the victim’s body.
Mitigating the case, Dley noted of the life Snelson has had since his arrest and trials were covered in the media. After his first trial and conviction, Snelson’s wife left him and he became estranged from all four of his children. Dley said Snelson recently connected with his eldest child after he was released on bail in June 2014. In addition, Dley mentioned Snelson’s good behaviour in prison, a renewed Christian faith and closeness with fellow church members in Kelowna.
Dley said an 11-year sentence was appropriate for the crime and said he was hesitant to increase it out of perception of vengeance.
He said Snelson has not accepted responsibility for killing Jennifer. Snelson declined to comment when asked if there was anything he wanted to say to the court.
“If he’d said something it would have made it easier on us,” Cusworth’s father Terry said outside of court.
The Cusworth family indicated plans to appeal the sentence.
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF JENNIFER’S DEATH
The case began on Oct. 16, 1993, after Cusworth and several friends attended a large house party on Kelowna’s Richter Street. Friends testified they saw Cusworth having a good time at the party and kept an eye on her when she had too much to drink. Faith Klinksiek said she was supposed to walk Cusworth home, but when it came time to do so she couldn’t find her. Cusworth had left alone and unaccounted for.
During the trial, jurors learned Snelson was also unaccounted for after the party, when he never met his friends for a breakfast at Denny's after their evening of partying.
Cusworth's body was found the next day in a ditch next to a pumpkin farmer’s property on Swamp Road. Cusworth was clothed, except for a belt of hers which was found not far from her body. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Cusworth’s body testified she died from blunt force trauma to her head, which could have been caused by an instrument. He suggested it was a tire iron. Dr. Ronald Roy also noted marks consistent with strangulation on her neck and semen present in her vagina.
Nearly 16 years later, that semen was an identical match to Snelson. He was taken into custody in 2009.
Two other suspicions linked Snelson to the scene where Cusworth’s body was dumped. A passerby noticed a truck near the scene in his early morning drive to work. He noted the pickup had a canopy on top of it. During a taped conversation with his father, the accused brought up that he didn’t like truck canopies, which Crown prosecutor Iain Currie found suspicious as Snelson volunteered that information randomly. Snelson said he cheated on his wife that night with two separate women, one of whom he said he had consensual unprotected sex with. But it was when Snelson made mention of returning a missing belt that authorities were concerned.
Currie said no one was told about the belt found next to Cusworth.
What happened between Cusworth and Snelson on the night of her death remains a mystery. But it was clear the two had sex, consensual or not. Currie argued Snelson raped the girl before killing her. He pointed to previous indecent exposure charges the accused faced in which he exposed his gentials in a public place. He accused Snelson of having uncontrolled sexual impulses which led him to commit the crime.
Snelson’s lawyer, Richard Fowler, saw the case differently and asked for ten to 12 years of prison time for his client.
While he didn’t deny the two had sex, Fowler argued during trial there was nothing that proved a sexual assault and the two may have had consensual sex at the party. He noted Snelson’s semen was not so much at the crime scene, but rather in and on Cusworth.
Despite testimony from party goers, Fowler argued the court only heard from six of the nearly 200 people who attended. He noted that despite Snelson coming in the door at 5 a.m. his wife at the time didn’t notice him acting suspicious.
Snelson will serve the remainder of his sentence at Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre.
To contact a reporter for this story, email Glynn Brothen at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 250-319-7494. To contact the editor, email email@example.com or call 250-718-2724.
—This story was updated at 1:31 p.m., Sept. 16, 2015, to include more information.
—This story was updated at 2:41, Sept. 17, 2015, to include a correction. Neil Snelson has one year and nine months remaining on his sentence, or 21 months instead of 19.