HALIFAX — A Nova Scotian woman acting as her own lawyer in a bid to overturn her conviction for murdering a young Inuit university student had a rough ride at the province's appeal court Wednesday.
Victoria Henneberry is asking for a new trial on grounds that she panicked when she pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Loretta Saunders of Labrador, her pregnant roommate in Halifax whose body was found on the side of a New Brunswick highway in February 2014.
But Henneberry started Wednesday by asking the Appeal Court of Nova Scotia for a delay, saying she was "not prepared mentally or emotionally." She said her mental health assessments had not been fully compiled, and she hadn't found a psychiatrist she's comfortable with.
Henneberry didn't bring any documents with her and only one piece of evidence, a written note by a psychiatrist she once saw recording Henneberry's past and present mental state.
But the appeal court insisted she go ahead.
Henneberry called three witnesses — a psychiatrist, police officer and her former lawyer — and quizzed them about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, which she claims she suffered from when she pleaded guilty.
She told the court she wasn't looking for a new trial only a "change of charges," but Justice Duncan Beveridge told her that if she won her appeal, the court would likely have to order a new trial.
"You were facing a charge of first-degree murder, and instead of standing trial on that charge you pled guilty to second degree murder (in 2015)," said Beveridge.
"If we were to strike your plea ... our only realistic option would be to send you back to trial for first degree murder."
This came as an apparent surprise to Henneberry, who asked that the courtroom be cleared, and then simply sat down when the judges said that wasn't possible.
Furthermore, Beveridge told Henneberry that Blake Leggette, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, could be called to take the stand against her if she had a re-trial.
The case was adjourned to Thursday, when Henneberry will continue her arguments.
Henneberry and Leggette, her boyfriend, pleaded guilty as their murder trial was starting on April 22, 2015.
Henneberry was sentenced to life in prison with no eligibility for parole for 10 years, while Leggette was given a mandatory life sentence with no parole eligibility for 25 years.
Two statements of fact filed with Nova Scotia Supreme Court say the couple had "financial difficulties'' soon after they moved into a sublet room in Saunders' apartment, which they had found through a Kijiji ad in January 2014.
On Feb. 13, 2014, Saunders, 26, went to collect rent from the couple but they didn't have the money, and Henneberry lied that she had lost her bank card and needed to contact her bank.
Leggette then grabbed Saunders by the throat and choked her, but the young woman fought back, managing to tear through the three plastic bags he pulled over her head, according to the statements.
At one point, Leggette and Saunders fell down. He twice hit her head on the floor and she stopped moving.
Saunders' body was found in a hockey bag on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway near Salisbury, N.B., about two weeks later.
Leggette and Henneberry were arrested five days later in Harrow, Ont., while driving Saunders' car. They also had the young woman's phone, bank card and identification.
Saunders' family came to court from Labrador for Wednesday's hearing.
"The reason we came was to make sure that everyone didn't put their eyes on her and pity her," Miriam Saunders, Loretta's mother, told reporters at the end of the day.
She said it was difficult to sit through the hearing because old wounds were being opened up.
"I was able to do some good memories of her before but it seems like they take my good memories and give me ugly, hard, painful ones," said Saunders.
Kieran Leavitt, The Canadian Press