It’s appeal or bust for prosecutors in the case of a former New Zealand politician accused of murdering his wife in 2010 while on vacation at a B.C. lake.
Peter Beckett was granted bail in a Kamloops courtroom on Friday (Dec. 18), pending the Crown appeal of a decision earlier this year from B.C.’s highest court overturning his 2017 fist-degree murder conviction. The 64-year-old will remain a free man unless the Supreme Court of Canada sides with prosecutors, who have decided not to run a third trial in the case.
Laura Letts-Beckett drowned in Upper Arrow Lake near Revelstoke on Aug. 18, 2010, while the couple was out for an evening boat ride. No one witnessed the drowning and there is no physical evidence linking Beckett to his wife’s death. Prosecutors have alleged he killed Letts-Beckett out of greed, hoping to cash in on life insurance payouts and her teachers’ pension.
Beckett was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder in August 2011 and he had been in custody since then prior to Friday’s release.
Beckett stood trial twice in B.C. Supreme Court for the murder of his wife — once in Kamloops and again in Kelowna. The first trial ended with a hung jury after jurors remained deadlocked following a week of deliberation; the second trial resulted in a first-degree murder conviction.
That conviction was successfully appealed by Beckett’s lawyers earlier this year on a number of grounds, including that the trial judge erred in instructing jurors and that prosecutors made improper submissions to the jury.
A three-judge B.C. Court of Appeal panel released its decision in Beckett’s favour in September, calling the Crown case weak and suggesting in no uncertain terms that prosecutors think twice about running a third trial.
The B.C. Court of Appeal is the province’s highest court.
“In these circumstances, a very real question arises as to whether it is in the interests of justice to proceed with yet a third trial,” B.C. Court of Appeal Justice Laurie Ann Fenlon wrote on behalf of the panel. “That decision, however, ultimately lies with the Crown.”
There will be no third trial. Crown prosecutor Neil Wiberg told KTW on Friday that decision was made in light of the appeal court ruling.
The BC Prosecution Service is, however, seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada the decision overturning Beckett’s conviction.
That means Beckett’s fate will ultimately be decided by Canada’s highest court. If the Supreme Court of Canada opts not to grant leave to the Crown, Beckett would be a free man. He would also go free if the court agrees to hear the appeal, but ultimately sides with Beckett’s defence.
The only way Beckett could find himself back behind bars, convicted of murdering his wife, is if the Supreme Court of Canada overturns the B.C. Court of Appeal decision on each of its grounds.
Beckett moved from New Zealand, where he was a councillor in the city of Napier, to Canada in 2000 to live with Letts-Beckett. The two met five years earlier while Letts-Beckett, a schoolteacher in Westlock, Alta., toured New Zealand.
On the evening of Letts-Beckett’s death, she and her husband were riding in their Zodiac on Upper Arrow Lake. Letts-Beckett, who was not a strong swimmer, drowned in the lake. No one witnessed the incident.
Beckett has steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout, claiming Letts-Beckett simply fell off the boat and drowned before he could save her.
During his trial in Kamloops, jurors were shown a video in which Beckett, an exceptionally large man, told police he was too buoyant to rescue his wife.
Beckett took the stand in his own defence during his Kamloops trial, becoming involved in heated verbal confrontations with prosecutors. In Kelowna, Beckett did not testify.
While on bail, Beckett will be barred from having any contact with Crown witnesses from either of his trials. He will also be prohibited from travelling anywhere outside of B.C. or Alberta.
The Crown has not yet filed its application with the Supreme Court of Canada. Once it’s filed, Beckett’s lawyers will be given time to file a reply. The high court will then decide whether to hear the case.
Lawyers expect to have a decision on whether the appeal will be heard by March.