The fate of a former New Zealand politician accused of murdering his wife while on vacation in B.C. more than a decade ago could be decided once and for all by Canada’s highest court.
Peter Beckett has stood trial twice for murder in connection with the death of his wife, Laura Letts-Beckett — once in Kamloops and again in Kelowna. The first trial ended with a hung jury after jurors remained deadlocked following more than a week of deliberation; the second trial resulted in a first-degree murder conviction, which was successfully appealed by Beckett on a number of grounds.
On Monday (Nov. 30), prosecutors made public their intention to appeal Beckett’s overturned conviction to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Letts-Beckett drowned on Aug. 18, 2010, in Upper Arrow Lake, near Revelstoke. The couple lived in Westlock, Alta., and was in B.C. on vacation.
Court has heard Letts-Beckett went into the water while the couple was boating. No physical evidence exists suggesting Beckett caused her to enter the water. The Crown has relied heavily on post-offence conduct — actions undertaken by Beckett in the days, weeks and months after his wife’s death.
Beckett, who has been in custody since his arrest in August of 2011, appealed his conviction successfully on the grounds that the Kelowna trial judge erred in instructing jurors and that prosecutors made improper submissions to the jury.
A three-judge B.C. Court of Appeal panel released its decision in Beckett’s favour in September, calling the Crown case weak and suggesting in no uncertain terms that prosecutors think twice about running a third trial.
“In these circumstances, a very real question arises as to whether it is in the interests of justice to proceed with yet a third trial,” B.C. Court of Appeal Justice Laurie Ann Fenlon wrote on behalf of the panel. “That decision, however, ultimately lies with the Crown.”
The B.C. Court of Appeal is the province’s highest level of court.
During a brief hearing in B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops on Monday, defence lawyer Marilyn Sanford said she was “surprised” to hear the Crown was seeking leave to appeal to Canada’s highest court.
“We had been deferring applying for bail in hopes that this sad saga would come to an end today,” she said. “We’re very surprised to hear that the [Crown counsel] appeals department — notwithstanding that there were several grounds of appeal the court found meritorious — has chosen to seek leave, which is, of course, their right.”
The decision by Crown to appeal makes any talk of a potential third trial moot for now.
The Crown will file an application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, then Beckett will file a response. After that, the high court will determine whether to hear the appeal. If it does not, the matter will return to B.C. Supreme Court and prosecutors will decide whether to run a third trial.
Beckett moved from New Zealand, where he was a councillor in the city of Napier, to Canada in 2000 to live with Letts-Beckett. The two met five years earlier while Letts-Beckett, a schoolteacher in Westlock, Alta., toured New Zealand.
On the evening of Letts’ death, she and Beckett were riding in their Zodiac on Upper Arrow Lake. Letts, who was not a strong swimmer, drowned in the lake. No one witnessed the incident.
Through both trials, prosecutors contended Beckett killed Letts out of greed, hoping to cash in on life insurance payouts and her teachers’ pension.
Beckett has steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout, claiming Letts simply fell off the boat and drowned before he could save her.
During his trial in Kamloops, jurors were shown a video in which Beckett, an exceptionally large man, told police he was too buoyant to rescue his wife.
Beckett took the stand in his own defence during his Kamloops trial, becoming involved in heated verbal confrontations with Crown prosecutor Joel Gold. In Kelowna, Beckett did not testify.
Sanford said Beckett will apply for bail as soon as possible. Lawyers are expected to meet early next week to set a date for a bail hearing.
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