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Accused killer cleared of second-degree murder of teenager

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A Winnipeg man has been acquitted of murdering a gang-involved teenager in a confrontation on a darkened North End street due to a lack of evidence.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Colleen Suche has granted Steven Raymond Johnston’s request for a directed verdict of not guilty to second-degree murder in connection with the death of Clark (Clarky) Stevenson, 15.

The development came just after prosecutors closed their case in a jury trial that began last week. Jurors returned to court this morning and were told they were no longer hearing a homicide case.

"My view is that there is no evidence from which the jury could reasonably infer that the accused had a knife in his hand when he hit Stevenson or that he somehow got possession of (a) knife and stabbed Stevenson, in light of the other evidence," Suche said in her decision to acquit Johnston.

"Such a conclusion would be nothing more than speculation," Suche said.

The Crown alleged Johnston sprung up from behind and attacked Stevenson in an early morning confrontation sparked by the victim near Boyd Avenue and Aikins Street on Sept. 10, 2011.

According to an eyewitness, Stevenson stopped some of Johnson’s friends in the street while shouting gang slogans and indicated he had a gun. After a few moments of back and forth jabbering, the witness said he saw Johnston come up from behind, put Stevenson in a headlock and deliver a series of "uppercuts" the Crown alleged were actually stabs, not punches.

As the two grappled against a fence, a youth co-accused came up with a knife and slashed at Stevenson, the witness said. At no time did the witness place a knife in Johnston’s hands.

Stevenson, who was affiliated with the Indian Posse street gang, suffered several stab wounds, including one to the chest. He was able to ride his bike away from the scuffle and collapsed a short distance away where he was found.

The Crown was also relying on the testimony of another witness to corroborate that Johnston had made an incriminating comment at a gathering soon after Stevenson’s killing, that he "did it" to protect his friends.

Pressed under cross-examination, the witness told court he was only "a bit sure" today, "maybe 50 per cent" that Johnston had said any such thing.

The witness, who would have been 17 at the time of Stevenson’s death, told court he had just woken up from a night of drinking hard liquor and was still drunk when he heard what he did.

Prosecutors argued the jury should be allowed to decide Johnston’s fate based on the circumstantial evidence that was available in the case.

Suche disagreed, saying the drunken witness was the only one who provided any evidence with respect to the stabber’s identity — an essential element to the charge of murder.

"It would be dangerous, in my view, to convict the accused based on such uncertain testimony," Suche said.

"I am satisfied that there is no evidence before this court, which if believed by a properly instructed jury acting reasonably, could result in a conviction for second degree murder," she stated.

There was evidence to show Johnston had assaulted Stevenson, said Suche. She ordered that an assault charge be left with the jury to deliberate.

The Crown, however, withdrew the assault charge this morning, said defence lawyer Darren Sawchuk.

Johnston has spent the last 28 months in custody awaiting trial.

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