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'He is not a murderer,' man told police of MUN student charged with trying to push him off Signal Hill

Crown prosecutor Jude Hall (left) and defence lawyer Mark Gruchy discuss an element of the case of a MUN student charged with attempting to murder his friend by pushing him off a cliff on Signal Hill, before the student's trial begins Monday.
Crown prosecutor Jude Hall (left) and defence lawyer Mark Gruchy discuss an element of the case of a MUN student charged with attempting to murder his friend by pushing him off a cliff on Signal Hill, before the student's trial begins Monday. - Tara Bradbury

Attempted murder trial begins in St. John's

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Crown prosecutor Jude Hall opened his attempted murder case Monday by focusing on the topography of Signal Hill — specifically, the rocky cliff face from which a MUN student is alleged to have tried to throw himself and his friend to their deaths.

Presenting still photos and video footage, including drone shots, taken by police of an area near Cuckhold's Cove, Hall indicated he will request the court take a field trip to the site during the trial, to view the landscape first-hand.

Defence lawyer Mark Gruchy, in his cross-examination of the trial's first few witnesses, chose instead to focus on statements the alleged victim gave to police — in particular, the man's assertion that his friend is not a murderer.

Signall Hill. - SaltWire File Photo
Signall Hill. - SaltWire File Photo

Neither the accused man nor the complainant can be named at this point, due to a publication ban ordered by Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Justice Vikas Khladkhar as the trial got underway Monday.

The accused is charged with attempting to murder his friend on April 7, 2017, while they were both international students at Memorial University in St. John's.

The complainant told police his friend had invited him to Signal Hill that afternoon on the pretense of looking for a ski trail, and had attempted to throw them both over the edge of a cliff. Police said in a news release at the time that the men had fallen about three feet, and the complainant had received minor injuries.

Photos taken of the man by police at St. Clare's hospital that night show red marks on his forearm and his finger.

Officers went with the complainant back to the site two days later for a walk-through, which was videoed. The footage focuses on a specific area of a rocky cliff and a thicket just below it, though no evidence has yet been presented with details. Close-ups of broken branches in the packed snow underneath the thicket were shown to the court.

"Why aren't you going any further?" Hall asked RNC Const. Lisa Fitzgerald, who took the still photographs.

"There's a steep step and then it drops off past that. It wasn't safe," Fitzgerald said, explaining she had to get on her knees and lean to capture some of the photos.

Seventeen months after the alleged attempted murder, when the snow was gone and the side of the cliff was covered in brush, police went to the site again. This time, they brought drone operators and members of St. John's Regional Fire Department for a rappel exercise that was videoed. Hall also showed that footage, which revealed the dramatic drop of the cliff and the ocean below.

In cross-examination, Gruchy zeroed in on the complainant's statements to investigators, grilling RNC Const. Karen Reynolds about her interactions with the man.

Reynolds acknowledged the complainant had twice tried to withdraw his consent for police to search the content of his cellphone.

"He didn't want (the information on the phone) getting back to his family in (the Middle East),” Reynolds explained.

Reynolds said she spent more than 10 hours with the complainant over a period of days about six months after the incident, allowing him to make clarifications about the information he provided. It was an unusually long process, the RNC officer explained, hampered by the man's difficulty with English and challenges in explaining himself.

In the original statement, the man indicated the accused had come quickly toward him, wrapping him in a hug, Gruchy pointed out. In the clarifications, the man said he believed his friend had not wanted to kill him, but wanted him to be there when he took his own life and "went to the other world." The complainant spoke of having kissed the accused after they fell down the cliff, telling police he did it in an effort to keep the accused calm and unsuspicious.

"(The complainant) wasn't happy that (the accused) was charged with attempted murder, was he?" Gruchy asked Reynolds.

"Correct," she replied.

"Would you agree he used the words, 'He's not a murderer'?" Gruchy asked.

"Yes," Reynolds replied.

"And he was the only one present at the scene? He's your main witness?"

"Yes," Reynolds said.

The trial, which is scheduled to take two weeks, will continue in St. John's today.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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