HALIFAX — A jury has found Nicholas Butcher guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Kristin Johnston, rejecting his claim that he was acting in self-defence when he stabbed the Montreal-born yoga instructor to death.
The 12-member Nova Scotia Supreme Court jury delivered its verdict Saturday after five hours of deliberation over two days.
Butcher, 36, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. Friends of Johnston could be heard sniffling in the courtroom, as Butcher sat at his lawyer's bench and looked directly forward.
A second-degree murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence. A hearing to determine Butcher's parole eligibility is scheduled for July 20.
Butcher was charged with second-degree murder after police found Johnston's body next to a steak knife on a blood-soaked bed inside her Halifax-area home on March 26, 2016.
Crown lawyer Carla Ball said it's been a stressful two years for Johnston's family and friends, but "justice has been done.
"Domestic violence is not something that is unusual, unfortunately. We can say that it's a tragic event for everyone involved," said Ball, standing alongside fellow prosecutor Tanya Carter.
"In this case, the evidence was very clear that Mr. Butcher was responsible."
Butcher, a law school graduate who wasn't able to find work in his field, was living with Johnston at the time of her death.
The jury heard that he called 911 and told the dispatcher he had killed his girlfriend and tried to kill himself. He also cut off his right hand with a mitre saw, but it was surgically reattached.
The Crown had argued Butcher deliberately killed Johnston, 32, after realizing their relationship was deteriorating.
The jury heard that in the weeks, days and hours leading up to her death, Johnston told friends she wanted to break up with Butcher. The Crown suggested that Butcher read some of those messages on the evening of March 25, 2016 when he accessed Johnston's computer, and realized Johnston wanted to end their relationship.
In the early hours of March 26, Johnston was hanging out at an old friend's apartment when Butcher showed up there unexpectedly.
Friends who were also there that night testified that Johnston and Butcher stepped outside together, and she came back in alone, telling them she had broken up with Butcher.
Butcher returned to the apartment a second time, and found Johnston kissing her old friend, Michael Belyea.
Hours later, Johnston was dead.
Ball suggested Butcher stabbed Johnston to death and then tried to kill himself with the same knife before cutting off his right hand with a mitre saw.
"This case is about a man who had significant financial challenges. He was highly educated, but underemployed. It caused him significant upsets leading up to March 25, 2016," said Ball during her closing arguments Thursday, referring to Butcher's $200,000 debt from law school.
"And if that wasn't enough... he realized that the investment that he put into the relationship with Kristin Johnston deteriorated in a blink of an eye. These factors built up like a constellation until he decided that if he could not have Kristin Johnston, no one else could have her."
Medical examiner Dr. Marnie Wood testified that Johnston's death was caused by sharp force injuries, and that she had "defensive injuries" on her hands and fingers.
But taking the stand in his own defence, Butcher argued that Johnston had attacked him, and that he was acting in self-defence when he killed her.
Butcher — the defence's only witness — testified it was dark and he couldn't see who it was, but managed to grab the knife and lash out, realizing seconds later he had killed Johnston.
"I reached over and I turned on the lamp, and the person that was beneath me was Kristin and she was dead," said Butcher earlier this month, breaking into tears.
"I just killed her by accident, just not even knowing what's going on."
Dreams of opening yoga studio
Johnston, whose brother owned a Bikram yoga studio in her hometown of Montreal, came to Halifax in 2011 with dreams of opening her own studio.
She was quickly embraced by the local yoga community, becoming known as a kind and determined businesswoman with a magnetic personality. Despite her passion, Johnston's studio shuttered about a month before her death.
Friends testified that Johnston wanted to leave her Halifax life behind, and was "ready for a new chapter" in Tofino, B.C., where her sister lived.
The defence argued that Johnston was under intense stress following the closing of her business, and snapped on Butcher because he was getting "in the way" of her plan to rekindle a relationship with Belyea.
Defence lawyer Peter Planetta said the guilty verdict "was not the outcome (Butcher) was hoping for." He said it's too early to say whether Butcher will appeal.
The jury heard from 32 witnesses over 14 court days.