Travis Vader has been found guilty of second degree murder in the death of a senior Alberta couple, who vanished just days after starting on a road trip to BC, in the first ever legal verdict to be televised in Canada.
"Mr. Vader, in one manner or another caused the death of Lyle and Marie McCann," Justice Denny Thomas said, reading a summary of his 131-page ruling to an Edmonton courtroom, in a rare televised broadcast of the proceedings.
Vader, who became known during a dramatic six-month trial for repeatedly causing delays by showing up late, had pleaded not guilty, arguing that the couple may not even be dead.
But according to criminal law professor Peter Sankoff, Thomas' verdict may not stand as it relies on a section of the Criminal Code that's been deemed unconstitutional. If the defence pursues the issue, Sankoff tweeted, Vader could still be found guilty of manslaughter, meaning he could receive a significantly shorter sentence.
The couple at the centre of the case are Lyle McCann 78, and Marie McCann, 77, who disappeared shortly after embarking on a road trip from their Alberta home to visit family in British Columbia in July 2010.
Security footage from a gas station in their home town of St. Albert, Alberta, showed Lyle filling up the their RV, which was found in flames two days later at a campground near Edson, Alta. But police only began searching for the McCanns five days after that, when family members reported that they hadn't arrived in Abbottsford, BC as scheduled.
The Hyundai Tuscon they were towing was found separately a few days after the discovery of the RV, and would become a key piece of the Crown's case against Vader.
Prosecutors argued that Vader, 44, was a drug addict who killed the McCanns somewhere around Peers, Alberta, while attempting to rob them.
At the centre of the Crown's case was Vader's DNA, found on a beer can in the the couple's SUV, as well as blood found on an armrest, passenger seat, and steering wheel. The court also heard that the McCanns' cell phone had been used to text Vader's ex-girlfriend shortly after police believe they were killed.
Over the course of the trial, which saw 89 witnesses take the stand, Vader has maintained that he's innocent.
His lawyer Brian Beresh also contended that it's possible the couple isn't dead, considering their bodies were never found and neither was a murder weapon. He argued the Crown's case was purely circumstantial, that DNA evidence wasn't enough to convict Vader of murder, and that it could've come from, for example, him sneezing into the SUV or being in contact with someone who later climbed into it, the CBC reported. It's possible, he argued, that Vader "discovered the SUV and cell phone together and abandoned, after the true killer had detached the motor home."
Speaking with reporters outside the courthouse, Beresh said Vader he plans to appeal the verdict.
Alberta RCMP released a statement on Thursday, thanking Thomas for how he'd treated the evidence.
"Today, our thoughts are with the McCann family, whose demonstrated respect for the criminal trial process continues to set a very high standard for all Canadians," said the statement. "The RCMP will not be providing further comment due to the possibility that Mr. Vader may choose to appeal the verdict."
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