Trial delayed after accused murderer diagnosed with COVID due to triple bunking in remand centre outbreak

·3 min read

A murder trial has been derailed after staff at the Calgary Remand Centre triple-bunked inmates, mixing healthy and sick prisoners and causing the accused killer to contract COVID, according to the inmate.

Closing arguments were to take place Friday in Justin Bennett's second-degree murder trial, but to the surprise of lawyers and the judge, he was not brought to court due to the outbreak at the remand centre.

Bennett is accused of fatally beating his stepdaughter Ivy Wick, 3, in October 2017. He has pleaded not guilty.

Joined by phone, Bennett told his lawyer that in cells meant for two, staff were often housing three inmates.

He said he'd been in a "negative cell" with another inmate before guards added someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

"That's how everyone got it," he said of the triple-bunking.

Hundreds sick in remand outbreak

Alberta Health Services says it's been notified of 413 cases linked to this outbreak. Of those, 170 are active with 243 recovered.

AHS has said enhanced cleaning protocols are in place, as well as the use of PPE, and that mask use is "ongoing" when physical distancing is not possible.

The Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, which runs the Calgary Remand Centre, said in an earlier statement that sick inmates are grouped together.

Bennett, who was on the telephone from the remand centre, has the right to appear in person and in their closing arguments, lawyers will be referring to exhibits and a PowerPoint presentation.

"I'm extremely uncomfortable with this situation," defence lawyer Allan Fay told Court of Queen's Bench Justice Blair Nixon. "I think we all take the position that is not suitable under the circumstances, especially when we're talking about the issue of both sides presenting argument.

"I fully appreciate the difficulties the pandemic has presented to the courts but I think it's imperative we do our utmost to comply with provisions of Criminal Code."

Prosecutor Sue Kendall agreed Bennett should be in the courtroom in person unless he provided written, signed consent to appear via closed-circuit TV.

"It does not get much more serious than second-degree murder," said Kendall.

Nixon said he normally would not entertain an adjournment at this point in a trial but given the unique pandemic-related circumstances, the judge agreed with the lawyers.

A new date for closing arguments will be set in January.

Ivy, the daughter of Bennett's then-girlfriend Helen Wordsworth, was injured on Sept. 27, 2017, and died eight days later after she was brought to hospital suffering serious head and brain injuries.

Bennett was charged a year after Ivy was killed. In that time, police ran an undercover operation which ended with the accused's confession.

On the day of her injuries, Ivy was having a tantrum.

In a videotaped conversation, Bennett told the undercover officer he checked to make sure Wordsworth was in the shower before punching Ivy in the head, throwing her against a wall and then tripping her.

But in his testimony, Bennett said he lied to the undercover police officers when he confessed to the killing because he "didn't want to lose" the attractive lifestyle his new friends had introduced him to.

Defence has suggested it was the child's mother who caused Ivy's injuries.