HALIFAX — Nicholas Butcher was acting in self-defence when he stabbed Kristin Johnston inside her Halifax-area home, his lawyer said Thursday during closing arguments at the law school graduate’s second-degree murder trial.
Peter Planetta told the 13-member Nova Scotia Supreme Court jury that Butcher, 36, did not intend to kill the Montreal-born yoga instructor on March 26, 2016.
“He never wanted to kill Kristin Johnston … He killed a person he didn’t want to die,” Planetta said, as Butcher sat at a bench behind him, showing no emotion.
Planetta said Johnston, 32, went and got a knife as Butcher slept and stabbed him in the neck, and that he was acting in self-defence when he fought back.
“He did it quickly… with no time to think,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Crown argued Butcher deliberately killed Johnston after realizing their relationship was deteriorating.
In her closing address, Crown lawyer Carla 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.
“You might find yourself contemplating, ‘Who stabs themselves in the neck 13 times?’” Ball asked the jury.
“The answer: the same person who progresses from a razor blade to a power saw in a desperate attempt to quickly and efficiently end their life, and the same person who murders the woman they supposedly love and watches them die within five minutes the exact same way and with no way out.”
Ball asked the jury to reject Planetta’s suggestion that the 137-pound woman was able to attack Butcher, a stocky man, and create a “tight pattern” of 13 injuries on his neck: two clusters on the right and left sides and another cluster in the middle.
She said several things point towards Butcher being guilty of second-degree murder: the blood stain patterns inside the bedroom, the weapon, his suicide attempts, the defensive wounds on Johnston’s hands, and the lack of defensive wounds on Butcher’s hands.
“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, 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.”
Planetta suggested to the jury that Johnston was “acting quite erratically” in the days before her death after she returned home from a trip to Costa Rica and following the closing of her yoga business in Halifax.
“You could say (she is) almost losing her grip because of the pressure she’s under,” Planetta said, referring to messages Johnston sent friends about how she was feeling.
“Those are her words describing how she felt on March 25, 2016. She’s panicked, she could get sick, she’s smothered, she’s trapped. That, I would submit, shows someone going through a hard time and not handling it well.”
Planetta also suggested Johnston was upset with Butcher for getting “in the way” of her plan to rekindle a relationship with an old friend, Michael Belyea.
The jury heard that Butcher showed up to Belyea’s unexpectedly and found Johnston and Belyea kissing, hours before her death. Friends testified that Johnston had broken up with Butcher earlier in the evening, but he disputed that as he took the stand in his own defence.
Planetta said a message she sent to Belyea later that morning after Johnston and Butcher returned home indicates she was angry, and she eventually snapped.
Ball suggested that Butcher read Johnston’s Facebook messages, in which she discussed wanting to end her relationship with Butcher, and then “tracked her down.” She asked the jury to reject Butcher’s assertion that he went uninvited into Belyea’s apartment a second time because he feared for Johnston’s safety.
“What makes sense was that the real threat was Mr. Butcher,” she said.
The trial has heard Butcher called 911 and told the dispatcher he had killed his girlfriend and tried to kill himself. He cut off his hand with a mitre saw, but it was surgically reattached.
Butcher — the defence’s only witness — told the jury he fatally stabbed Johnston when he awoke to someone stabbing him in the throat with a knife.
He testified it was dark and he couldn’t see who it was, but managed to grab the knife and fight back — realizing seconds later he’d killed Johnston.
Before closing arguments started, Justice Joshua Arnold told members of the jury that one juror had been discharged, although it was not explained why.
Arnold will deliver his closing instructions Friday morning, after which the jury will begin deliberating.