By Tim Petruk, Kamloops This Week
After a trial spanning four months and deliberations over seven days, the jury tasked with deciding the fate of a former New Zealand politician accused of drowning his wife in a B.C. lake could not come to a unanimous verdict.
Peter Beckett’s jury returned hung at about 6:45 p.m. on Tuesday, less than four hours after passing a note to B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ian Meiklem saying they were at an impasse.
Meiklem urged the jurors to push on and come to a unanimous verdict.
In the end, one dissenting voice caused the mistrial.
“Totally predictable,” Beckett told KTW just before the hung jury, by that point a foregone conclusion, was made official.
Beckett, 59, still stands accused of the first-degree murder of his wife, Laura Letts-Beckett, who drowned in Upper Arrow Lake near Revelstoke on Aug. 18, 2010.
What is a hung jury?
A hung jury is a mistrial ordered by a judge when jurors are unable to reach a unanimous verdict. It is not an acquittal. The charges remain before the court and a new trial is usually scheduled.
The Crown’s case against Beckett is a circumstantial one. Prosecutors allege he killed his wife out of greed, hoping to cash in on life-insurance and accidental-death benefits as well as her teachers’ pension.
Beckett, meanwhile, maintained Lett-Beckett’s death was either suicide or an accident. Letts-Beckett admitted to having suicidal thoughts in a 2007 diary entry.
Court heard Letts-Beckett went into the water while she and Beckett were on an evening boat ride near Shelter Bay Provincial Park campground. She was not wearing a life jacket and was not a strong swimmer.
In her 90-minute closing submission to the jury, defence lawyer Donna Turko pointed out a lack of physical evidence connecting Beckett to his wife’s death.
“No one testified, ‘I saw Mr. Beckett cause the death of his wife,’ nor is there any medical evidence saying so,” she said.
“This is purely a circumstantial case. Imagine if you were found guilty of murder simply because you were present for the demise of your spouse. While it appears to have been enough to have charged Mr. Beckett, that does not mean he is guilty . . . In this case, there isn’t a smoking gun.”
Turko attempted to poke holes in the Crown’s theory on motive, saying Letts-Beckett handled all of the insurance paperwork in the relationship and that the amount of money in question was only enough to cover outstanding debts.
“The Crown wants you to find Mr Beckett guilty because they just don’t know,” Turko said. “This is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt because you just don’t know.”
A Crown witness lied in court, Turko said, and police deliberately withheld information about how much a jailhouse informant who testified against Beckett was paid.
“Some people came to court as more of a witch hunt . . . to burn him at the stake,” Turko said.
Turko also asked jurors to consider wrongful convictions in making their decision.
“Most of these have been convicted on circumstantial evidence or evidence of an informant,” she said. “I know how most of you would feel if you had a loved one wrongfully convicted.”
In its closing, the Crown meticulously detailed a number of inconsistencies in Beckett’s various statements to police and other witnesses.
Prosecutor Sarah Firestone said the totality of the inconsistencies mean Beckett killed his wife.
“All of his lies demonstrate that he is responsible for getting her in the water and keeping her there until she drowned,” Firestone said.
“In order for you to convict Mr Beckett, the Crown does not have to prove how she was killed . . . only that he was responsible.”
Firestone said “one of the most significant lies” Beckett told was that he used a rock from the shore to sink himself down to Letts-Beckett’s body and pull it to shore.
“It defies common sense that a rock is heavy enough to sink with which you can still swim,” she said. “The accused is lying to you about finding a rock and doing anything to save Laura. He wasn’t trying to save her because he was trying to kill her.”
At many points during Firestone’s closing argument, Beckett could be seen shaking his head emphatically in his seat in the courtroom.
Pieces of evidence were kept from jurors, most notably a statement from Letts-Beckett’s cousin alleging Beckett had previously threatened to drown her in a B.C. lake.
Virginia Lyons-Friesen was one of the first witnesses called by the Crown when Beckett’s trial began in mid-January. She spoke about the relationship between her cousin and Beckett, detailing an intense argument the couple had during a visit in Calgary prior to Letts-Beckett’s death.
But after extensive pre-trial hearings, Meiklem ruled Lyons-Friesen could not discuss a conversation she claims to have had with Letts-Beckett after the dust settled. The reasons for that decision have yet to been released.
In a police affidavit obtained by KTW, Lyons-Friesen said Beckett told Letts-Beckett she would drown in a B.C. lake.
“He said to her, ‘This is how you’re going to die,’” the affidavit reads. “You’re going to drown. You won’t know when, where it’s going to happen, you won’t know when it’s going to happen, but you’re going to know how it’s going to happen. That’s how it’s going to happen.’”
Lyons-Friesen went to police eight days after she heard about Letts-Beckett’s Aug. 18, 2010, drowning.
Beckett remains in custody. Lawyers will return to court on Monday to set a date for his next appearance.