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BEHIND THE SCENES: Lack of criminal record a mitigating factor in Wright sentencing reporter Jenny Lamothe takes us behind the scenes

Robert Steven Wright will serve 12 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole in connection with the 1998 murder of Renée Sweeney. Wright was found guilty of second-degree murder on March 29 for fatally stabbing Sweeney at her workplace on January 27, 1998. Since his arrest in 2018, he has remained incarcerated.

On June 29, the courtroom at the Sudbury Courthouse was filled, although the attendance was lower compared to peak times during the trial, particularly when Wright testified in his defense. He claimed to have been present at the store but denied killing Sweeney, stating that he panicked and fled the scene. Wright entered the courtroom wearing a gray-checked shirt, with a noticeably longer beard than his previous appearance. Some members of the jury, as well as Wright's supporters and family, were present in the gallery.

In delivering the decision, Justice Robbie Gordon acknowledged the impact of the victim impact statements presented during the May 19 hearing, along with the submissions from prosecutor Rob Parsons, Kevin Ludgate, and defense co-counsel Michael Lacy and Bryan Badali. Victim impact statements were either read aloud in court or submitted to the judge for consideration.

Having reviewed the trial, witness testimonies, and photographs, Justice Gordon expressed his awareness of the terror Sweeney experienced in her final moments. He emphasized that she was young, defenseless, and confronted by a knife-wielding assailant, resulting in multiple stab wounds. The defensive wounds demonstrated her struggle for survival.

Gordon recognized the loss suffered by Sweeney's family and community, stating that her life should not have been taken away. He commended Sweeney's character as a remarkable individual and expressed his sympathy towards her family and loved ones. However, he emphasized that his decision should not be driven by emotions or a desire for vengeance.

The judge then discussed the factors that influenced his decision, including both aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Aggravating factors increased the time before parole eligibility, while mitigating factors reduced it. He also emphasized the importance of considering the principle of parity, ensuring consistency with similar cases involving comparable offenders, offenses, and circumstances.

In addition to the violence of the crime and its impact on the community and family, Gordon took into account Wright's actions and character in the years following the murder. Recognizing that Wright had no further involvement with the justice system and maintained positive relationships, the judge characterized his behavior as that of a panicked young man. The length and conditions of Wright's pre-sentence custody, which amounted to four-and-a-half years, were also considered.

Justice Gordon determined that Wright would serve 12 years of his life sentence before becoming eligible for parole. He imposed additional conditions, including a lifetime ban on firearms, mandatory DNA registration, and restrictions on contacting witnesses, Sweeney's family, and loved ones.

After the announcement, the gallery remained in the courtroom, and exchanges between supporters of both sides ensued. Shouts and insults were directed towards Wright by Sweeney's supporters. Greater Sudbury Police officers physically separated the Wright and Sweeney families as they left the courtroom swiftly.

While the Crown declined to speak with the media, defense counsel stated their intention to appeal. Lacy expressed belief in significant grounds for an appeal and cited concerns about a fair trial in Sudbury. Joseph Wilkinson of Wilkinson Legal in Toronto will lead the appeal.

The Sweeney family expressed disappointment with the sentence, contrasting their earlier mood following the verdict. Instead of speaking directly to the media, Kim Sweeney, the victim's sister, issued a statement. She expressed gratitude to victim services, the police, and Crown attorneys for their support during what she described as the most challenging time of her life.

Video Summary:

Robert Steven Wright will serve 12 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole for the 1998 murder of Renée Sweeney. The decision was made by Justice Robbie Gordon, who considered both aggravating and mitigating factors in reaching the sentence. The judge acknowledged the violent and horrific nature of the crime, as well as the impact it had on Sweeney's family and the community. On the other hand, Gordon took into account Wright's positive character and lack of involvement with the law since the murder. Defense counsel plans to appeal the decision, citing concerns about a fair trial in Sudbury.

The sentence was determined based on a careful examination of factors by Justice Robbie Gordon. Despite recognizing the emotional impact and desire for vengeance, the judge aimed to find a balance between aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Second-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence, but Wright will be eligible for parole after 12 years. The court considered the extreme violence of the crime, the enduring questions faced by Sweeney's family over 25 years, and the pro-social behavior exhibited by Wright in his community. Over 30 character reference letters were submitted in support of Wright's positive reputation. Defense counsel, Michael Lacy, believes there are grounds for appeal, including inappropriate language used in closing arguments and concerns about a fair trial in Sudbury. An appeal will be handled by lawyer Joseph Wilkinson from Toronto, but the exact timeline is yet to be determined.

The Sweeney family expressed disappointment with the 12-year sentence, as they had hoped for a longer period of incarceration. The Crown had initially submitted 18 years, while several jury members favored more than 20 years before parole eligibility. The differing perspectives on the appropriate sentence reflect the deeply emotional and complex nature of the case. Given the intention to appeal, the process is likely to be lengthy and continue for an extended period.