Chelsea Whitby, hugging a small stuffed bear, collapsed into tears Tuesday morning as a judge acquitted her of killing her toddler.
Whitby, 27, was initially accused of second-degree murder in the death of her 18-month-old son Emerson on June 10, 2020. Crown prosecutors later reduced the charge to manslaughter, after Court of King's Bench Justice C. L. Dawson ruled evidence presented by the Crown during a voir dire — a trial within a trial — was inadmissible.
The courtroom gallery was overcapacity Tuesday morning as Dawson ruled Whitby was not guilty of either charge.
"Emerson's death is a heartbreaking and terrible tragedy," Dawson said in court Tuesday, adding that loved ones, and the investigators and medical staff involved with the case, were all affected.
"While I cannot say that I'm not suspicious that Ms. Whitby may have done something untoward to Emerson on June 10, I must be guided by the law."
The court previously heard that Emerson died from blunt-force trauma.
When he arrived at the hospital the day he died, he had about 20 bruises covering his body and had suffered broken bones. Emerson had no underlying health condition that could have contributed to the injuries, and there was likely more than one incident that caused them, the court heard.
Crown prosecutors Adam Breker and Aly Sparks had argued Whitby caused the injuries that led to her son's death, but Whitby maintained she doesn't know how her son was fatally injured.
On Tuesday, Dawson said the Crown had to prove an unlawful act caused Emerson's death and that Whitby intended either to kill her son or harm him in a way that she knew would likely be fatal.
During the voir dire, which lasted more than two weeks last June, the Crown presented evidence to try to show the relationship between Whitby and her son, in hopes of establishing motive. But Dawson ruled the evidence would not be admissible because it was unreliable.
During closing arguments, the Crown suggested an unlawful act had occurred and pushed for a manslaughter conviction.
Adam Breker, one of the Crown prosecutors in the Whitby case, told reporters he expects they'll recommend appealing Tuesday's decision. (Will Draper/CBC)
"This is an unusual or uncharacteristic way of the Crown acknowledging that it failed to prove an essential element of the offence of second-degree murder," Dawson said Tuesday.
The judge, after reviewing the admissible evidence, said she ultimately found the Crown did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt Whitby had the intent needed to convict her on the murder charge.
For manslaughter, the Crown had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Whitby committed an unlawful act that caused Emerson's death, Dawson said, but failed to meet the bar for that as well.
"We're disappointed today — mostly disappointed for the family and friends of Emerson, though, of course, no matter what happened here today, Emerson's never coming back," Adam Breker, one of the prosecutors on the case, told reporters after court. "That tragedy will remain no matter what."
The Crown relied on direct and circumstantial evidence for its case, and required Dawson to infer, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Whitby did something to her son sometime between the night of June 9, 2020, and the morning of June 10, 2020, that caused his death, she said.
Court of King's Bench Justice C. L. Dawson found Chelsea Whitby, 27, not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter for the death of Whitby's 18-month-old son. (Will Draper/CBC)
Citing a previous Supreme Court of Canada ruling, Dawson told the court that the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is "not one of mathematical certainty," but closer to "absolute certainty."
"Proof of probable or likely guilty is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Dawson said.
The judge does not "entirely believe" that Whitby didn't do something to her son, but there is reasonable doubt she committed an unlawful act that killed her son, she said.
The available evidence includes a seven-and-a-half-hour police interrogation and wiretapped phone conversations between Whitby and loved ones. Whitby did not make an inculpatory statement — a form of evidence that could connect the accused to a crime — during either, Dawson noted.
Whitby did not outsmart the experienced officers interrogating her and at times acknowledged the gaps in her memory, Dawson said. But she consistently denied she did anything wrong.
She was also unaware her phone was tapped, but did not say anything that could be interpreted as admitting wrongdoing, Dawson said.
The judge also could have made inferences other than Whitby's guilt, she said.
Darren Kraushaar, Whitby's attorney, told reporters it was a complex case that presented multiple evidentiary issues.
After court was adjourned Tuesday, Kraushaar spoke with Whitby and some of her family. He said she felt a sense of relief after the decision.
"I wouldn't say she's happy," Kraushaar said.
"I think she's a little bit not sure what to do, kind of the next step in her life. This has been a major focus of her life for the last three years."
Defence attorney Darren Kraushaar told reporters the Chelsea Whitby trial was a complex case. (Will Draper/CBC)
Breker, one of the Crown prosecutors, told reporters he expects they'll recommend appealing the decision based on some of the pre-trial evidentiary rulings.
The decision will be made sometime in the next 30 days by the appeal Crowns, he said.