KELOWNA, B.C. - A mother's tears capped five weeks of high emotion in a Kelowna, B.C., courtroom, as the teen charged with stabbing Ashlee Hyatt in the neck was found guilty of manslaughter.
Charrie Hyatt lost her composure on the courthouse steps shortly after a jury rendered its decision Sunday afternoon, finding the girl who killed 16-year-old Ashlee guilty of manslaughter.
"Ashlee got justice. And we're so happy," Hyatt said. "We wanted (the accused) to be accountable for taking a life . . . She didn't walk away from this. That's good enough for me.
"The fact that she'll have to sit in jail and be accountable for her actions makes me happy."
The six man, six woman jury rejected a charge of second-degree murder. They reached a consensus on manslaughter shortly after lunchtime, ending almost two days of deliberations.
The jurors had earlier admitted they were evenly split on whether the stabbing was an accident, and asked B.C. Supreme Court Justice Geoff Barrow to give them a legal definition of the term.
He instructed them on accidental death, which prompted defence lawyers to oppose his wording but Barrow ruled against revising his instructions. The jury achieved unanimity soon after.
Defence lawyer Donna Turko said she won't decide on whether to appeal the conviction until she gets the chance to discuss it with the accused and her family.
Turko also declined to say what punishment she plans to pursue at the sentence hearing, which will likely happen in the new year. But she confirmed she'll oppose any Crown application to sentence the girl as an adult.
"There's a tendency not to put children in jail when there's not a serious risk of harming the public," Turko said.
Crown counsel Murray Kaay requested a psychiatric assessment and a pre-sentence report, which will influence him on whether to seek an adult sentence. The maximum prison term for manslaughter under the Youth Criminal Justice Act is three years.
If the teen is sentenced as an adult, the maximum jumps to life in prison, although that penalty is rarely imposed, even on hardened criminals. The girl has no criminal record and told the jury she's had no dealings with police before or after the stabbing.
The jury heard as many as 20 teens gathered at a house in Peachland, about 20 kilometres south of Kelowna, after the accused and several others went drinking and four-by-fouring in June 2010. Hyatt and the hostess accused the suspect, then 16, of kissing a boy at the unsupervised party while the suspect's boyfriend was nearby.
The argument escalated to a fight outside the home and Hyatt suffered a five centimetre deep stab wound, severing a major artery beneath her collar bone. She collapsed and died within minutes.
The accused testified in her own defence and suggested the hostess held the knife during the fight. Turko said Hyatt's death was an accident.
Other teenage witnesses, including a sober Michael Baxter, testified only the accused held the knife during the fight. Baxter said she was angry at Hyatt and threatened to stab her before their final altercation.
The hostess testified she was cut while struggling to disarm the accused after Hyatt was stabbed, but the jury acquitted the teen of assault in that matter.
About 40 supporters sat in the courtroom as the jury foreman announced the verdict. Heather Bridge, a friend of the young victim's mother, said the finding was not a surprise.
"It would have been nice to have the (murder) verdict, but you could see the jury was very torn," she said. "The fact they've at least . . . not let her walk out of this building and spend the rest of her life knowing what she had done, it's good."
The teen, whose identity is protected, showed little emotion during the trial. When the jury filed in with the verdict, she was exhaling heavily and stared at the floor in the prisoner's box.
"She had a hard time keeping herself composed. She knew what was coming," said Bridge, who wore a "justice for Ashlee" button, an accessory forbidden in the courtroom.
The accused, now 18, shed tears without sobbing when the manslaughter conviction was returned. She and her mother went into an adjoining room to be alone. The case was then adjourned to Dec. 3, when the sentencing date will be set.
A dozen of Ashlee's friends appeared buoyant and relieved outside the courthouse entrance. Samantha Waller, 20, has attended the trial nearly every day since it started Oct. 15. She described Ashlee as fun-loving, energetic and happy.
"It's at least something, but it's never going to be enough," she said. "She was the most loyal friend . . . And that's the reason why we're here today. She would defend her friends if she felt anything disrespectful was being done to them."
The judge allowed the suspect to go home on strict bail conditions, pending her sentencing. (Kelowna Daily Courier)