Prosecutors in the Michael Rafferty murder trial have presented their final witness, leaving the jury with a compelling package of evidence to ponder before the defence gets its turn next week.
“The Crown rests its case,” Crown attorney Kevin Gowdey told the court as proceedings wrapped up late Thursday afternoon.
It is a strong case. And of all the planks in the Crown’s version of events surrounding the brutal death of eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford three years ago, none will likely prove more persuasive than the damning trial testimony of Mr. Rafferty’s former girlfriend Terri-Lynne McClintic, an admitted killer.
If he is to prevail, lead defence lawyer Dirk Derstine will have to seriously discredit that evidence in closing arguments.
But the four-member prosecution team placed much more material before the jury during the past eight weeks: DNA traces; a wealth of information about the battered Honda Civic in which Mr. Rafferty allegedly drove Tori to her death; drug connections between the Rafferty and Stafford households; the defendant’s conduct in the weeks before he was arrested.
And video footage. On Thursday, the nine-woman, three-man jury heard from prosecution witness No. 61, Gerald Lanna, a civilian forensic video specialist attached to the Ontario Provincial Police, who drew yet another link between Mr. Rafferty and Tori.
Mr. Lanna told the trial that minutes before the Grade 6 student disappeared from outside Oliver Stephens Public School in Woodstock, Ont., a video clip from a nearby Esso gas station showed a car seemingly identical to Mr. Rafferty’s Honda pulling in.
One feature stood out, he testified: an air-intake unit mounted on the front hood. Hondas of that year and make don’t have such an air-intake, he said; it would have to be specially installed. In concert with other features shared by the two cars, including a rare spoiler mounted on the back, tinted rear windows and wraparound taillights, “I would have to say that’s our vehicle,” he said.
Mr. Rafferty, 31, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, abduction and sexual assault causing bodily harm in Tori’s death. Her body was found in a patch of woods near Mount Forest, 110 kilometres from her Woodstock home, more than three months after she vanished in April, 2009. Among the lawyers, police, reporters and spectators who have been in the courtroom, opinion is divided over whether Mr. Rafferty will testify next week. Mr. Derstine has given no indication either way.
If he does go into the witness box, days of examination and cross-examination are likely, with the events surrounding Tori’s death sure to be revisited in detail. If he does not, closing arguments may begin as soon as next Thursday, with the case going to the jury the following week.
Ms. McClintic, now 21, remains pivotal to the Crown case. Two years ago, she admitted murdering Tori and is serving a life term at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener.
A few weeks before Mr. Rafferty’s trial began in March, however, Ms. McClintic altered her account of events in one key regard.
She reaffirmed that Mr. Rafferty drove the trio to the crime scene, raped Tori there and helped hide the body. But now she contends that it was she who wielded the murder weapon – a claw-head hammer she bought in Guelph on the afternoon of the kidnapping.
The defence contends Ms. McClintic did far more: that she kidnapped Tori to resolve an unspecified drug debt, and orchestrated the entire crime.
During her six days in the witness box, however, Ms. McClintic stuck to her story: that aside from the issue of who used the hammer, everything she told police in her original confession remained true.
Nor, judging by her evidence, did it appear that her new account of events was designed to shield her former boyfriend. “I’m not the only guilty party here,” she testified.
Asked why she was now admitting she had beaten and kicked Tori to death, she said she had changed.
“I’m not proud of who I was,” she told the court. “I’m not the same person.”
True or not, her extraordinary testimony will be hard to ignore.
So, too, will be the DNA evidence presented to the jury. Tori’s body was so badly decomposed when it was discovered, pathologist Michael Pollanen told the trial, that it was impossible to say whether a sexual assault took place – a key component in the defence scenario.
But Tori’s DNA was found in Mr. Rafferty’s car, the jury heard – a speck on the bottom of a gym bag, and in a trace of blood on a door frame. The odds of it not being Tori’s DNA are 28 billion to one, the court was told.
Another strong card for the Crown was Mr. Rafferty’s connection to the crime scene. A cellphone call placed him nearby that day, and he was familiar with the area, the jury heard.
Also of great interest to the prosecution were his connections to Tori’s family. Ms. McClintic has always insisted the little girl was selected at random, but the trial heard that a shared interest in drugs and dogs had led to a friendship of sorts between Tori’s mother and Ms. McClintic’s mother.
Shoes belonging to Ms. McClintic and abandoned near the crime scene were another reason to believe her account of events; so was the trail of cellphone calls and texts that led to Mount Forest and back that day, along with her purchase of the hammer.
Nor did it help Mr. Rafferty’s credibility to have a parade of female witnesses, including a former prostitute, tell the jury they had all met him via an online dating site and he had promised most of them an “exclusive” relationship.
In the spring of 2009, he was seeing at least 15 different women, the trial heard.
Finally there is the question of the missing Honda back seat on which he allegedly raped Tori before she was killed. Ms. McClintic told the trial of ripping out chunks of the upholstery and flinging them out of the car as she and Mr. Rafferty drove away after Tori’s murder. Like the hammer, the seat has never been found.
Several of Mr. Rafferty’s former neighbours, however, offered an explanation as to where it went. They testified that a few weeks after the murder, they spotted it outside the house he shared with his mother, awaiting pickup by the garbage collectors.
The trial resumes Tuesday.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: