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This article was published 1/5/2019 (1001 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They would need to find a bigger courtroom. That much was clear on Tuesday morning, before the trial’s opening remarks even started, when every seat was filled with observers and still more were left to wait in the dim-lit stone hallway outside. The courtroom was big, but not nearly big enough to hold all the love for Christine Wood.
Remember that, as the trial for her murder moves forward. Over the next several weeks, many things will be said about her, and about the events that conspired to steal her young life in 2016. But wherever those facts may lead, remember that on the day the trial opened, her legacy shone so bright a whole courtroom couldn’t contain it.
Love. That is what Christine left behind, and nearly three years after her disappearance, that love hasn’t faded. It is tended by her cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, many of whom were in attendance, along with her three older brothers, who look so much like the young woman Winnipeg saw in police handout photos.
Above all, there are her parents, George and Melinda Wood. For nearly eight months after she went missing, they scoured Winnipeg for signs of her. Through it all, they never gave up on their daughter: right up to the day in June 2017 they brought her body home to Bunibonibee Cree Nation, they did everything they could for her.
On Tuesday, they did it once more, becoming the first two witnesses to testify. Outside the courtroom, Melinda fought back tears as she prepared to take the stand; she’d never laid eyes on the accused, Brett Overby, until she stepped into that packed room, and the weight of that moment was almost too much for a mother to bear.
She did not bear it alone. In the hallway, family flowed into a circle around her, a halo of women lending her an embrace and a renewed strength. When Melinda took the stand, her soft-spoken voice rose clear and true; the threads of Christine’s death began when she left her parents. It is right that the trial began with them, too.
Their voices in these proceedings are precious. Because if a trial observer is searching for something to understand who Christine really was, they are unlikely to find it. Murder trials are not centered on the victim; the fullness of a life spreads out far beyond what justice searches for in its focused lenses.
Half the witnesses the Crown will call are police officers. They will testify about Christine’s death: the evidence that led them to arrest Overby, the ditch east of Winnipeg where her body was found. Of the other witnesses the Crown expects to call over the next couple of weeks, George and Melinda knew Christine for her whole life.
Still, as they took the stand, Christine’s life was funnelled into a series of narrow questions. Did she finish school in her home community of Oxford House? (She did.) Had she visited Winnipeg before she moved here for university in 2015? (She had.) Which parent was she closest with? (Her mother, George said with a smile.)
What the jury will likely never hear is how, when Christine was a little girl, she was a bright student who loved butterflies and excelled at reading. How she loved to strike playful poses for photos, and could be charming to anyone who met her; she once cleaned her friend’s whole apartment while he was at work.
If one listened between the lines of George and Melinda’s testimony on Tuesday, the little details of the loving family life they had with Christine sparkled through. Details like how, when George drove to join them in Winnipeg that August, his daughter asked him to bring one of her favourite dark pink Adidas hoodies from home.
One night later, that hoodie vanished with Christine. The Crown doubtless asked George about it because it will factor into evidence of what she was wearing the night prosecutors allege she died; but under a gentler light, that testimony makes a record of an everyday love, filled by all the little ways a parent cares for his child.
Or consider how, on the night Christine went missing, Melinda and George made a quick trip to a convenience store. Before they left, Melinda — who knew Christine was going out that night — testified that she took a quick peek inside her daughter’s white purse, checking to make sure her daughter had some money before leaving the hotel.
Just a mom, making sure her 21-year-old daughter had enough cash to get where she was going, to take care of herself if things went wrong, to get back home OK. A familiar parental ritual, soon turned to a nightmare: when George and Melinda returned from the store, Christine was gone. They would never hear from her again.
Still, it was in moments like that where Christine’s life fluttered most vividly into the court record. Or, it was in how they’d spent a day shopping at Value Village and Polo Park mall; the night they ordered pizza, because it was her favourite; the times Christine and Melinda went for long drives in the car, just to laugh and talk about life.
There were harder things Melinda testified about, too. About how Christine struggled with emotional pain after her childhood best friend, Molly Munroe, was killed in a 2009 stabbing at just 14 years old. Or about how, in the last weeks of her first year at university, she started staying out late and became less interested in her studies.
That caused Melinda some concern, she agreed on the stand. But she’d worried about her daughter ever since she’d moved to the city. So her parents came to visit as often as they could, and Melinda texted her every day just to say "good morning." It helped that Christine always replied within minutes, or at the most a few hours.
"Everybody would be concerned," Melinda testified, of those worries. "Things happen in the city."
For Christine’s family, those fears became an unbearable truth. Now, it is time to hold the facts up to light: whether Overby is responsible for her murder, a jury will soon decide. But in the meantime, as witnesses line up to lay out what they know about what happened to Christine, those flashes stand as testimony to who she really was.
After the lunch break on Tuesday, the trial moved to a different courtroom, where it is expected to remain until it is over. It is the biggest one, a magnificent second-floor space with ornate finishings along the ceiling and ten tall windows that gaze out over the roof of the courthouse, and a peek of cool blue sky beyond.
There is light in it. And, above all, there is enough room for love.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.