A once-popular Edmonton bar promoter sat expressionless in a courtroom Thursday as a jury declared him guilty of five counts of sexual assault and acquitted him of eight others after a marathon, highly emotional trial that began last fall.
Matthew McKnight, 33, had been charged with 13 counts of sexual assault against young women he met in the Edmonton bar scene, with the Crown alleging he plied them with alcohol and, in the majority of the cases, likely also drugged them with GHB, sometimes known as a “date rape drug.” The charges dated between March, 2010, and July, 2016.
Mr. McKnight showed no obvious reaction as the foreman delivered the verdicts.
Outside court, defence lawyer Dino Bottos expressed disappointment with the five guilty verdicts and said he was already considering grounds of appeal.
“We did our best to show Matthew McKnight’s innocence, and we’re saddened today that he was convicted of these five counts,” he said.
Crown prosecutors Mark Huyser-Wierenga and Katherine Fraser declined to comment.
Outside court, one of the women Mr. McKnight was acquitted of assaulting trembled and held back tears. She said she was just glad it was over.
The allegations against Mr. McKnight first became public in August, 2016, when the Edmonton Police Service announced he had been charged with sexually assaulting three women. Police also asked that people come forward if they had information and/or believed they had “also been sexually assaulted by the accused.”
Six weeks later, the police announced charges involving 14 other women.
Mr. McKnight ultimately faced 13 counts at this trial, which at 62 days became one of the province’s longest-running criminal trials in recent memory.
The five-man, five-woman jury deliberated about 26 hours before rendering the verdicts late Thursday morning.
Mr. McKnight still faces charges of sexual and physical assault against two other women. Those cases are slated for separate jury trials this year.
During the trial, the court heard Mr. McKnight was a well-known personality in the Edmonton bar scene, working with both the country bar Knoxville’s and its broader ownership group, Urban Sparq.
The trial presented the jury with conflicting views of Mr. McKnight, with the Crown portraying him as a “sexual barracuda” and predator who preyed on intoxicated women, drugging some of them with GHB, then raping them in his downtown Edmonton condo, often while after-parties continued outside his bedroom door.
The defence, meanwhile, painted him as a promiscuous player on the bar scene – but one who became a victim of gossip and rumours, poor police investigations, social-media mobs and the ire of angry or embarrassed former sexual partners.
The trial, which began hearing evidence in October, included emotional testimony from 12 of the 13 complainants, with one woman testifying both about her own assault and an assault she said she witnessed on a friend the same night. (Mr. McKnight was found not guilty of both of those charges.)
The women told wrenching stories of painful, degrading and terrifying assaults, often recalled in glimpses amid blackouts and long periods of memory loss. Together, their testimonies spanned weeks. Their identities are protected by court-imposed publications bans.
The court heard the women were not connected and did not previously know each other, and that several told friends, boyfriends or others that they’d been sexually assaulted by Mr. McKnight long before the charges first become public. Five of the women initiated police complaints or sexual-assault examinations immediately after their encounters with Mr. McKnight, although some ultimately chose not to proceed with complaints at the time.
Mr. McKnight testified in his own defence for eight days, giving in-depth, at times extremely graphic and detailed recollections about his interactions with each woman. He testified that each of the cases involved consensual sexual contact and that the women were either lying or mistaken about what occurred.
His version of events was underscored by the testimony of a roster of friends and former roommates who variously described seeing each of the complainants awake, functioning and apparently interacting happily with Mr. McKnight – and in no apparent distress.
Mr. Bottos said the charges stemmed from one particular woman who had been telling people in the bar industry that Mr. McKnight drugged and raped women. Mr. Bottos alleged that story contributed to the 17-year-old coming forward in the summer of 2016 and that the situation escalated further when Edmonton police issued the media release, branding Mr. McKnight a serial rapist, “the worst kind of social pariah.”
“It’s hard to say, ‘I was his lover,’ ” Mr. Bottos told the jury. “It’s easier to say, ‘I was his victim.’ ”
He argued it was not up to the defence to determine the motives of each woman accusing Mr. McKnight, but said the common theme was regret.
However, Mr. Huyser-Wierenga and Ms. Fraser argued that the extremely detailed memories of Mr. McKnight and his friends – who claimed to recall picayune but corresponding details from unremarkable nights years earlier – were proof of collusion or “a script.”
The prosecutors argued that the women’s lapses of memory were understandable given that they were dealing with trauma and, in most of the cases, had been intoxicated and possibly even drugged.
The prosecution also pointed to the improbability that 12 unconnected women would all come forward with the same allegations, which shared many specific details and patterns.
“It is completely improbable that each of the 12 women who testified would either lie about or completely misunderstand her night with Mr. McKnight,” Ms. Fraser told the jury at the conclusion of her argument. “Mr. McKnight was not credible. You should reject his evidence, and what he said should raise no reasonable doubt in your mind. You should believe each of these complainants.”
Originally slated to conclude in early December, the trial limped into January down two jurors, leaving just 10 people to consider the case and raising concerns about a possible mistrial if an emergency were to cause the loss of another juror.
In her charge to the jury, Justice Doreen Sulyma cautioned the jurors that they had to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt in each case that Mr. McKnight was aware the woman did not or could not consent – or that there was that risk – and proceeded with the sexual activity anyway.
The case will be back in court on Friday, Feb. 7, and sentencing arguments will take place after that.
Mr. McKnight will remain out on bail until that time.