TORONTO — Ontario's top court has upheld a Toronto-area woman's murder conviction in the death of her teenage stepdaughter, rejecting the argument that she should have been granted a judge-alone trial due to negative publicity surrounding the case.
Elaine Biddersingh was convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Melonie Biddersingh, and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 16 years.
Melonie's emaciated body was discovered in a burning suitcase in a parking lot north of Toronto in 1994, and her body remained unidentified until 2011, when Elaine Biddersingh told her pastor the girl had died after being confined and deprived of food and medication.
Melonie’s father, Everton Biddersingh, was found guilty in early 2016 of first-degree murder in his daughter’s death, and was automatically sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Elaine Biddersingh, who was tried separately, testified for several days during her husband's trial, and the case was covered extensively in media reports.
Before her own trial began, she sought permission to have her case heard by a judge alone rather than a jury, arguing her rights to a fair trial would otherwise be compromised given the media coverage of her husband's trial. She also pointed to a public opinion survey conducted by her lawyers.
Her request was denied by the prosecution, as was her subsequent application to the court.
The trial judge found that the evidence she filed did not support the suggestion that 12 impartial jurors could not be found, court documents say. The judge also ruled that the risk of jurors coming across potentially prejudicial information after being selected could be mitigated through the usual means, such as instructions to not look up anything having to do with the case.
In her appeal, Biddersingh argued the judge who oversaw her trial was wrong to dismiss her application, and that he set the test to grant a judge-alone trial so high that it is impossible to meet.
A decision issued this week by the Court of Appeal for Ontario found the trial judge "properly considered the evidence and the general protections in place to ensure fair jury trials and reached a decision that was free from error."
The appeal panel noted the judge considered the circumstances of the case as well as the general safeguards regarding juries. For example, the panel wrote, the judge pointed out that the survey showed 46 per cent of respondents had not heard or seen anything in the media regarding Melonie's death, and 74 per cent had not heard anything about Biddersingh herself.
Biddersingh also appealed on grounds that the judge erred in admitting some statements she made to police and in his instructions to the jury, but those arguments were also rejected by the appeal court.
Though she didn't testify at her own trial, Biddersingh's lawyers suggested she was a victim of domestic abuse and her husband was responsible for Melonie's death.
Court heard the teen was dead before her body was stuffed in the suitcase, and the judge overseeing Biddersingh's trial said at her sentencing that he was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt the girl had drowned in an attack carried out by her father.
But Justice Ian MacDonnell said Biddersingh was a partner in the abuse that led to Melonie's death.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press