TORONTO — A Toronto man who was the last person seen with a murdered young woman presented an "easy target" for investigators to blame for her death, his lawyers said Monday as they argued for his acquittal.
Defence lawyers told a Toronto court Kalen Schlatter had no motive to kill Tess Richey, a woman he had met hours earlier, in early morning of Nov. 25, 2017.
In her closing arguments, lawyer Lydia Riva suggested Schlatter had no difficulty finding sexual partners and thus would not "turn homicidal" because one woman did not want to have sex with him.
She argued Richey, 22, was killed by someone else moments after Schlatter left her in a downtown Toronto alleyway where the two had gone to "make out."
"The criminal justice system can get it wrong. Mr. Schlatter was an easy target," Riva told jurors. "He was the last person seen on video with Tess Richey...so he is easy to blame."
But she said the footage, which shows Schlatter and Richey going into the alley together and Schlatter emerging alone roughly 45 minutes later, does not tell the full story.
"Kalen Schlatter did not do this. He did not kill Tess Richey. Do not add to this horrific tragedy by convicting an innocent young man," the lawyer said.
Schlatter, 23, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Richey, whose body was found in a downtown Toronto stairwell in November 2017.
He testified last week that he met Richey and her friend Ryley Simard after all three left the same club, and Richey led him to a secluded stairwell in an alley to make out after her friend went home.
He said Richey did not want to have sex because she was on her period, and they parted ways a short time later.
Richey was reported missing after she failed to return from a night out with a friend, setting off a widespread search effort. Her body was discovered days later by her mother and a family friend.
Court has heard Schlatter's DNA was found on Richey's pants and bra. A forensic pathologist testified the young woman died from strangulation, possibly using something soft like a scarf or a forearm.
Prosecutors allege Schlatter was set on having sex that night and killed Richey after she rejected his advances.
Schlatter's lawyers, however, have pointed to another man captured on security footage in the area that night as a possible suspect.
Riva argued Monday that the man, who can only be identified as J.G., had "a fantasy that Tess Richey was interested in him" after the two crossed paths shortly after 3 a.m. and decided to follow her.
She suggested J.G. vaulted over a fence into the backyard next door, then over a tall wooden gate and into the alley "seconds or minutes" after Schlatter's departure, and approached Richey, who rejected him.
"He had motive, knowledge of the area and opportunity to commit the crime," she said.
While there were motion-activated security cameras in the area, Riva suggested they would not have captured such a movement. Someone familiar with the area would have known to avoid the cameras, she said.
Court has heard J.G. does not appear on any video surveillance from the area after roughly 3:40 a.m., more than half an hour before Schlatter and Richey are seen going into the alley.
Jurors have also heard that J.G. gave a DNA sample to investigators but nothing found on Richey matched it.
Riva argued some DNA evidence is not detectible, adding that if J.G. would not necessarily leave any behind if he killed Richey "out of frustration because she rejected him."
The defence also urged jurors to disregard the testimony of Schlatter's former cellmate, a longtime criminal who told the court Schlatter confessed to losing control and strangling Richey with a scarf.
Calling him a "pathological liar" and a "sociopath," Riva suggested the informant, who can only be identified as E.S., made up his account in the hopes of getting favourable treatment from the justice system, even though the Crown said he would not receive any.
Riva also questioned the credibility and reliability of one of the two undercover officers who spoke to Schlatter in a holding cell, noting there were differences between his account and that of his colleague.
Sh also argued her client's comments to the undercover officers, including those in which he bragged about his sexual conquests, were "taken out of context."
The trial is one of two murder trials that have been allowed to proceed even as Ontario's courts prepare to dramatically cut their operations.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice announced Sunday it would suspend all regular operations, including all new trials, until further notice starting Tuesday to reduce risks related to the novel coronavirus.
Chief Justice Geoffrey B. Morawetz said in a notice the court would only hear urgent matters during the suspension, but trials already in progress would receive direction from the presiding judge Monday.
The judge presiding over Schlatter's trial, Justice Michael Dambrot, asked jurors if they wanted to continue, saying he did not want "anyone to feel they are being asked to put their health at risk."
Prosecutors are expected to make their closing arguments Tuesday morning. Dambrot is scheduled to give his instructions to the jury Friday, followed by the start of deliberations.
Civil and family courts are also largely shutting down over COVID-19 concerns, and will only deal with "urgent and emergency" cases, including those having to do with public health, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice said.
The Ontario Court of Justice, which handles the bulk of criminal cases but does not have jury trials, has also said all matters would be automatically adjourned and rescheduled to a later date, and urged those involved not to attend court.
Other judicial bodies, such as the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, are also postponing hearings indefinitely.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 16, 2020.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press