Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Accused acquitted in death of gang affiliate

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A lack of evidence has resulted in a Winnipeg man being acquitted of killing a gang-involved teenager in a confrontation on a North End street.

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

The development came after prosecutors closed their case in a jury trial that began last week. Jurors returned to court Monday morning and were told the Crown had dismissed the case.

"You'll notice that it's a rather empty courtroom this morning," Suche told them. "I'm sure you can see some of why this happened."

Suche did not disclose on the record she had found Johnston, 20, not guilty of the murder charge by way of a directed verdict requested by defence lawyers Darren Sawchuk and Andrew McKelvey-Gunson.

"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 written decision to acquit Johnston, issued last Friday. "Such a conclusion would be nothing more than speculation."

The Crown alleged Johnston sprung 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 and another youth stopped some of Johnston's friends in the street while shouting gang slogans. Stevenson indicated he had a gun, court heard.

After a few moments of back and forth jabbering, the witness said he saw Johnston approach from behind and strike Stevenson before placing him in a headlock and delivering 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 eyewitness 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 following the scuffle and collapsed a short distance away.

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 such a thing.

The witness, who was 17 at the time of Stevenson's death, told court he had just been woken up from a night of drinking and was still drunk.

Prosecutors argued the jury should be allowed to decide Johnston's fate based on the circumstantial evidence available to them.

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 for the jury to deliberate on. The Crown elected to not proceed, Sawchuk said Monday.

Johnston spent 28 months in custody awaiting trial.

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2014 B3

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