Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stage set for appeal?

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Mark Stobbe's fate remains in the hands of a jury but the stage may already be set for an appeal should the former government adviser be convicted of killing his wife.

Stobbe, 54, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder for the October 2000 death of Beverly Rowbotham. Jurors began deliberations on Tuesday and remain sequestered until they reach a verdict.

The Free Press can now report on two incidents that happened outside the jury's presence during the two-month trial. In both cases, Crown attorney Wendy Dawson's line of questioning was cautioned, on the record, by Queen's Bench Justice Chris Martin.

The first occurred when Dawson called a Selkirk-area resident to testify. Stobbe has claimed he was asleep in his St. Andrews home at the time his wife's body was dumped more than 14 kilometres away in Selkirk. But Gary Beaton told jurors he saw Stobbe -- or someone built just like him -- at the crime scene in Selkirk.

"That's him," Beaton said while pointing out Stobbe in the courtroom. Dawson had previously told jurors she had no eyewitness evidence against Stobbe and the case was circumstantial. Yet, Beaton had suddenly provided the proverbial smoking gun.

Stobbe's lawyer, Tim Killeen, was irate. Jurors left the courtroom and he voiced his objection. "I'm astonished we'd have this kind of theatrics. It's cheap... and absolutely intolerable," he said. "I'd like to know when the discussion of this little trick took place."

Dawson added to the intrigue when she said she was just as shocked as anyone. "I threw it out there expecting he'd say he couldn't (identify Stobbe). I fully anticipated he'd say no," she told court.

The judge questioned how Beaton could make such an important revelation nearly 12 years after he first saw the shadowy figure and eight years after he gave his first statement to police. Killeen didn't ask for a mistrial but hinted extreme damage may have been done to his client by Dawson's question and the subsequent answer. Martin agreed, giving jurors a rare mid-trial warning about the perils of eyewitness evidence such as what they'd just heard from Beaton.

"In the past there have been miscarriages of justice, persons have been wrongfully convicted, because so-called eyewitnesses have made mistakes in identifying persons they believe responsible," said Martin.

Killeen also tried to rectify the situation by getting Beaton to admit, under cross-examination, the person he claimed to saw might not have been Stobbe. Or even a man. Beaton conceded it was dark and foggy, he wasn't wearing his glasses and he only saw the person for as little as 10 seconds as he biked past the area.

Dawson again found herself fending off legal criticism during her marathon cross-examination of Stobbe, in which he repeatedly denied hitting his wife in the head 16 times with a hatchet, then moving her body from their backyard to Selkirk. On the fifth day, Martin warned Dawson she was dangerously close to being "abusive" in her questioning, which included lengthy periods of revisiting the same topics.

"I've got some red flags going off about the boundaries and the limits here," Martin told her with the jury out of the courtroom. "It gets to a point where it gets to be too much."

Dawson insisted she be allowed to make one final run at Stobbe. Martin said she'd already done that.

"What is the point of your questions?" asked Martin. Dawson admitted Stobbe was likely going to continue to deny any involvement in the slaying.

"You think he's going to say yes? We'll both fall out of our seats if he says 'You know what, after five days you've beaten me down,' " said Martin.

The jury returned to court and Dawson ended her questioning moments later.

Jurors must review evidence from about 80 witnesses.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2012 0


Updated on Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 11:43 AM CDT: Adds verdict has been reached

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