Court hears appeal of Nicholas Butcher’s murder conviction today

A three-member panel of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal is hearing an appeal Wednesday in the second-degree murder conviction of Nicholas Jordan Butcher.

Butcher was found guilty in the 2016 killing of his girlfriend, Kristin Johnston, in her home on Purcells Cove Road in Halifax.

The conviction carries an automatic life sentence. Justice Josh Arnold ruled Butcher must serve a minimum of 15 years in prison before he can begin applying for parole.

Butcher’s lawyer, Jonathan Hughes, will go before the panel this morning to try to get both Butcher’s conviction and sentence overturned.

On March 26, 2016, Butcher spoke to a 911 operator.

“I killed my girlfriend and I tried to kill myself,” he said. “I cut off my hand.”

The CBC’s Blair Rhodes is live blogging from the hearing.

Multiple stab wounds

Johnston was dead in the bedroom of her home. She had multiple stab wounds.

Butcher’s severed hand lay on the floor near the mitre saw he had brought into the bedroom to use in an apparent suicide attempt.

But he survived his injury and surgeons managed to reattach the hand.

He was convicted after a four-week jury trial in April 2018.

Hughes is arguing four grounds of appeal:

  • The trial judge erred in allowing hearsay statements of the deceased.
  • The trial judge erred in allowing evidence of bad character.
  • The trial judge erred in providing jury instructions which were too lengthy and complicated for the jury to follow.
  • The trial judge imposed a period of parole ineligibility which is manifestly excessive and unreasonably harsh in the circumstances, in part relying on aggravating factors not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

During the trial, the Crown referred extensively to Johnston’s Facebook Messenger posts from the night she died. They showed her soliciting advice from friends and acquaintances about how to break up with Butcher.

Kristin Johnston was killed in 2016 at her Purcells Cove home. Nicholas Jordan Butcher was convicted of second-degree murder in her death. (Kristin Johnston/Facebook)

A police computer expert testified that Johnston had left her laptop running in her home and Butcher was able to read the messages she was posting using her phone. Those messages included an exchange with a man she went to visit that night.

Butcher showed up at the man’s apartment, twice, and eventually persuaded Johnston to come home with him. She was dead hours later.

During the trial, jurors heard how Butcher, a law school graduate, had failed to find an articling position to complete the work necessary to become a lawyer.

He had moved into Johnston’s home after encountering financial difficulties. At Butcher’s sentencing, the Crown brought in two of Butcher’s former girlfriends to testify about how difficult their relationships with him had been.

Intimate partner violence

On the fourth ground of appeal, Arnold cited the fact this case involved intimate partner violence in his decision to set the sentence at 15 years.

By comparison, in sentencing Christopher Garnier for the murder of Catherine Campbell, Arnold set the parole ineligibility at 13 years. Garnier and Campbell were strangers who had just met the night she was murdered.

Hughes is asking the appeal panel to order a new trial for Butcher. Failing that, he’s asking the court to reduce the amount of time Butcher must serve before he can begin applying for parole.

Decisions are typically reserved in such cases.

Because of the high public interest, the appeal hearing is being livestreamed on the court’s website.

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