A new trial has been ordered for a man who was previously convicted of first-degree murder for drowning his wife while they were boating on Arrow Lakes in Aug. 2010.
Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon of the B.C. Court of Appeal said in a decision released Sept. 29, that the case against Peter Beckett was circumstantial and the trial judge made several errors in relation to the admission of evidence and instructions to the jury.
According to statements made by Peter at the time, the incident occurred when they left a campground, the two had been staying at, to boat on Arrow Lakes.
While out on the lake, Peter was sitting at the back at the boat and was faced away from Laura with two fishing rods around him. Laura was sitting on her life jacket at the front of the boat, holding an open umbrella.
Peter heard a splash and discovered that Laura had gone over the side of the boat. He then grabbed one of the fishing rods and started to wind it in, calling it a “stupid fisherman’s instinct” during the trial.
As Peter saw Laura drifting away from him and go underneath the water, he grabbed the other fishing rod, either threw it in the water or let it go, and spun the boat around.
He claimed he turned the engine off and went into the water to try and save Laura. He tried grabbing her underneath the water but could not reach her.
Peter stated he managed to grab his wife and pull her to the surface, but was unable to resuscitate her and so dragged her onto shore, but to no avail.
Beckett, a former city councillor from New Zealand, was charged with first-degree murder a year later.
His first trial ended in a hung jury and a mistrial before he was convicted at a second trial in 2017.
The three-justice panel of the Appeal Court was unanimous in overturning the conviction.
At the second trial, Crown counsel alleged that Beckett pushed his wife into the water, killing her so he could cash in on her life insurance policy and pension. The defence said Beckett’s wife accidentally fell in and Beckett tried to save her.
Fenlon wrote that the trial judge erred in instructing jurors that they could use Beckett’s statement to police shortly after the drowning as evidence of fabrication that would support a guilty verdict in the absence of independent evidence that he intentionally made up the story.
She also stated the judge also erred accepting evidence in the trial used by the Crown counsel to show there were issues with the couples’ relationship, claiming it invited the jury to engage in improper speculation.
While she also wrote that the Crown made improper submissions to the jury that referred to unproven facts.
Mr. Titsworth, the manager of the campground where the Becketts were staying on Arrow Lakes, was called by the Crown counsel to describe an unpleasant interaction he had with Peter leading up to Laura’s death.
“I am of the view that the Crown’s case was not a strong one, and is likely to be less so on retrial given the conclusions I have reached,” Fenlon wrote in her reasons for judgment.
“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. That decision, however, ultimately lies with the Crown.”
She added that although the verdict “raises concern and unease,” it could not be said that the jury’s verdict was unreasonable and an acquittal was not warranted.
Dan McLaughlin of British Columbia’s prosecution service said the Crown will review the decision to determine what happens next, but in the meantime, it will arrange to bring the matter back before the court to proceed with the prosecution.
“While we are mindful of the comments of the court in their reasons, the decision regarding a further prosecution will be made only after a complete and comprehensive review of the available evidence,” he said in an email.
The date for the new trial is still yet to be determined.
~With files from The Canadian Press~