Court upholds convictions for man who killed, dismembered friend in hotel room

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TORONTO — Ontario's highest court has upheld the convictions of a man who repeatedly stabbed and then dismembered his friend in a London, Ont., hotel room more than seven years ago.

James McCullough had challenged his first-degree murder conviction in the grisly slaying of Alex Fraser, arguing the trial judge erred in her instructions to the jury and in admitting evidence that suggested he was interested in cannibalism.

He was also found guilty of committing an indignity to a human body, which he appealed on the same grounds.

Both challenges were rejected by the Court of Appeal for Ontario this week, after a three-judge panel found the judge had handled each issue properly.

At trial, prosecutors alleged McCullough was a predator who carried out a twisted fantasy when he killed the 20-year-old Fraser and cut up his body in a hotel room in September 2013.

Defence lawyers, meanwhile, argued McCullough had been drinking and doing drugs that night, and stabbed his friend out of fear and rage when Fraser made unwanted sexual advances.

They said McCullough was distraught and remorseful after killing Fraser, and behaved franticly as a result.

The appeal centred on the judge's instructions to jurors regarding McCullough's behaviour after the killing, and on her decision to admit as evidence rap lyrics he wrote as well as comments he made to a psychiatric nurse.

CAUTION: Graphic content may disturb some readers.

McCullough's lawyers argued the judge should have told jurors they could not use his behaviour after the killing -- particularly the fact that he ate two fast-food meals near his friend's dismembered remains and saved a bone fragment in a resealable plastic bag -- to determine whether the attack was planned and deliberate.

"The post-offence conduct evidence demonstrates that the appellant acted in a cool and calculating manner after he killed and dismembered Fraser – not franticly, as he claimed," the appeal panel wrote.

"Not only could this evidence be used to refute the defence’s 'frantic reaction' narrative; as a matter of common sense and experience it was also relevant to the inference of planning and deliberation."

The trial judge also made sure the jury was aware that there could be other explanations for McCullough's behaviour after the slaying, the panel wrote.

What's more, defence lawyers were consulted regarding the judge's instructions to the jury and raised no such concerns during trial, the appeal court said.

McCullough's lawyers further argued the trial judge should not have admitted evidence related to McCullough's desire to commit cannibalism, which he expressed to a psychiatric nurse, because there was no evidence any cannibalism took place in the attack on Fraser.

They further argued the judge should not have admitted violent rap lyrics McCullough wrote because there was only a weak connection between the actions they described and the offences he was accused of.

The appeal panel found, however, that the judge had properly weighed the usefulness and risk involved in allowing the evidence, and placed limits on how jurors could use it.

The trial judge told jurors they could only use the evidence of ideation and the lyrics to determine issues related to motive, intention and planning, and that they should consider whether the lyrics were simply a form of artistic expression.

"The evidence, she found, posited not a general tendency to violence, but a highly specific and unusual manifestation of violence – the dismemberment of a human body. The trial judge found that the prospect of prejudice was outweighed by the probative value of the evidence and admitted it," it wrote.

"Her decision was neither unreasonable nor marred by legal error or a misapprehension of the evidence. It is entitled to deference."

First-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. McCullough had initially challenged the sentence but later abandoned that appeal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press