Two men who escaped Vancouver Island prison plead not guilty to murder

VANCOUVER — Two men accused of killing a man the day after escaping a minimum-security federal prison on Vancouver Island have each pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder as their trial gets underway in British Columbia Supreme Court.

Zachary Armitage and James Lee Busch are charged with killing 60-year-old Martin Payne in July 2019, a day after the pair walked away from William Head Institution, located about eight kilometres from the victim's home in Metchosin.

Justice David Crossin told the jury at the start of the trial that although the men are being tried together, their guilt or innocence should be determined individually.

Crown prosecutor Sofia Bakken says Payne was killed in his home after returning from his job as a mail carrier in Victoria the day after the two men escaped.

She outlined the witnesses and some of the evidence the jury is set to hear from in support of the Crown's theory that Armitage and Busch killed Payne to further their escape, including a forensic specialist expected to testify about finding three identifiable DNA profiles in the victim's home: his own, and those of the accused.

Bakken told the court there was a "significant" amount of blood in Payne's home, and a pathologist is also expected to testify about identifying "chop wounds" to the victim's skull that were consistent with those inflicted by a hatchet.

The prosecutor says Armitage and Busch were arrested after they approached a man who happened to be an off-duty police officer out walking his dog.

Crossin explained to the jurors how they must be sure of each man's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt if they are to deliver guilty verdicts.

Sitting on the other side of a glass barrier in front of the victim's family members, Busch wore a grey sport jacket and collared shirt with a short, slicked-back ponytail, while Armitage had a buzz cut and wore a T-shirt layered over a long-sleeved shirt.

Both men took notes throughout the hearing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2022.

The Canadian Press