Serial sex offender Matthew McKnight says treatment by prosecutor demands new trial

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A former Edmonton club promoter convicted of raping multiple women is challenging his convictions in Alberta’s highest court, arguing the lead Crown prosecutor overstepped his bounds and became the trial’s “most important witness.”

On Friday, the Alberta Court of Appeal will hear the case of Matthew McKnight, who a jury convicted of five counts of sexual assault, all of which occurred when McKnight was in charge of promoting some of Edmonton’s biggest nightclubs.

McKnight is asking for a new trial, claiming in part that prosecutor Mark Huyser-Wierenga “ignored or forgot” his duty to act in an “even-handed” way, subjecting McKnight to sarcasm, inflammatory language and prejudicial lines of questioning that improperly influenced the jury.

The Crown maintains the trial was fair and that Huyser-Wierenga was “entitled and indeed expected to conduct vigorous cross-examination of … the accused.”

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McKnight was sentenced to eight years in prison following a sprawling, 63-day trial that heard from 37 witnesses. He was charged with 13 counts of sexual assault dating from 2010 and 2016, when he was director of sales and marketing with Urban Sparq Hospitality, an ownership group with investments in bars across Canada.

McKnight spent more than a week on the stand, including four days under cross-examination by Huyser-Wierenga. McKnight claimed that all the sex acts were consensual and that the women accusing him were “mistaken or lying.”

Twelve of the 13 complainants testified and were themselves subjected to cross-examination by defence counsel Dino Bottos, which on more than one occasion resulted in tears.

McKnight’s appeal says the trial was closely fought and that “neither the Crown nor the defence’s theory of events was fully accepted.”

“In a case turning largely on questions of credibility, it was essential to ensure that a fair trial was safeguarded,” lawyer Peter Sankoff writes. “Unfortunately, that did not occur.”

Canadian law holds that a prosecutor’s first duty is not to “win” a case, but to present the evidence fairly and with a “lack of animus” toward the accused, McKnight’s appeal argues. It says prosecutors must act with an “ingrained sense of dignity” and that Huyser-Wiergena fell “far short” of this standard.

The appeal highlights several examples, including a sarcastic remark on the second day of cross-examination in which Huyser-Wierenga mocked McKnight’s version of events as “nothing but butterflies, rainbows and smiles and wet vaginas.”

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Prosecutor Mark Huyser-Wierenga speaks after Matthew McKnight was sentenced to eight years, July 31, 2020.
Prosecutor Mark Huyser-Wierenga speaks after Matthew McKnight was sentenced to eight years, July 31, 2020. Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia

Sankoff writes: “The Crown throughout the trial used direct and cross-examination as a tool to voice his opinion that the appellant (McKnight) and defence witnesses were not to be believed and should be regarded with contempt — effectively becoming the trial’s 38th and most important witness.”

Sankoff argues Huyser-Wiergena further prejudiced the jury by cross-examining McKnight’s friend about misogynistic posts on his own Twitter account, and about allegations that McKnight was in contact with a drug dealer. All but four women said they suffered unexplained blackouts, which the Crown alleged could have been caused by a hard-to-trace substance such as GHB. Justice Doreen Sulyma ultimately found no evidence McKnight drugged anyone.

McKnight’s defence team also faults Sulyma for her interpretation of Section 276 of the Criminal Code, which deals with evidence of a complainant’s prior sexual history. The appeal argues Sulyma used the law to compel McKnight to provide details of his interactions with the complainants before and after the alleged assaults, and that this “amounted to compelled disclosure in contravention of Section 7 of the Charter.”

The Crown admits Huyser-Wierenga “on occasion” strayed into improper questioning, but that Sulyma properly instructed the jury to disregard such remarks “in language suggested by (McKnight’s) experienced trial counsel.”

“Credibility was a central issue in this trial,” lawyer Matthew Griener wrote. “Crown counsel properly challenged the implausibility of the appellant’s apparent ability to narrate, in precise detail, 12 sexual encounters over a period of six years in which he had engaged in between 200 and 300 hundred similar such encounters.”

“The trial was fair, and the convictions should be affirmed.”

The three-judge court of appeal panel will hear the case Friday morning and issue a decision at a later date.

The Crown is also appealing McKnight’s sentence, which it argues is “demonstrably unfit.” Prosecutors originally argued McKnight should serve 22 1/2 years in prison.

More to come. 

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

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