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No choice but to delay Trent Butt's murder trial: judge

Accused murderer Trent Butt appears on a courtroom TV screen live from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary Thursday afternoon.
Accused murderer Trent Butt appears on a courtroom TV screen live from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary Thursday afternoon. - Tara Bradbury

Trent Butt looked unfazed as he appeared on a courtroom TV screen Thursday afternoon, live from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary. Wearing a white T-shirt and orange shorts, he sat in front of the camera, pressing his thumbs together.

In the courtroom, Andrea Gosse seemed resigned as she watched the TV screen. Under her coat, she wore a pink and purple ribbon and a tiny picture of her daughter on her blouse. Around her neck, there was a little gold plate with her daughter’s name, Quinn.

Surrounded by loved ones and shaking her head a few times in disbelief, Gosse appeared to hold it together until the moment the judge ordered the subpoenas that had been issued for jury selection in Butt’s murder trial — which was set to begin Monday — cancelled. With that, Gosse visibly fought back tears.

Butt, 39, is charged with first-degree murder and arson in the death of five-year-old Quinn, whose body was removed from his burning Carbonear home on April 24, 2016. Quinn was Butt’s daughter, and he and Gosse were estranged.

On Thursday, Butt indicated to the court he had fired his lawyers, Mike King and Bob Simmonds.

Preparations for his trial were already underway for a jury selection process at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, moved there from Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court to accommodate the 1,000 people subpoenaed in an effort to find an unbiased and impartial jury to hear the high-profile and highly emotional case.

As King and Simmonds were dismissed, lawyer Bob Buckingham told Justice Donald Burrage that Butt had asked him and lawyer Robert Hoskins to represent him instead, and that Butt’s relationship with his previous lawyers had broken down.

Buckingham told the judge he was prepared to take the case, but would first require a Legal Aid certificate transferred to him. He said he had contacted Legal Aid and was waiting for a response. Butt had done the same, and was told he would be unable to get the certificate due to recent changes in the Legal Aid Act, Buckingham explained.

For the past 10 years, Legal Aid clients facing serious charges like murder and manslaughter had the option of being represented by private lawyers. In Butt’s case, Legal Aid was paying for King and Simmonds, who practice privately.

Earlier this month, the provincial government took steps to amend the Legal Aid Act so this is no longer possible. Buckingham was among those who publicly opposed the amendments, saying it would result in court delays as people applied to appoint counsel, jeopardize timelines and bog down the Legal Aid system, among other issues.

“Mr. Butt, as the matter stands, you are unrepresented, is that correct?” Burrage asked Butt.

“Pending Legal Aid, that’s correct,” Butt replied, later adding, “Obviously, I won’t be able to proceed with the matter (on Monday).”

Crown prosecutor Lloyd Strickland told the court he and fellow prosecutor Jennifer Lundrigan were ready to proceed with the trial as soon as possible.

“We’re in an impossible situation,” Strickland told Burrage. “Witnesses have been subpoenaed and we exerted the necessary energy, as certainly the sheriff’s officers have done, to prepare for this trial. Having said that, we recognize Mr. Butt is charged with first-degree murder and the court is not prepared to proceed until he has representation.

“We’re ready to proceed at any time: spring, summer, winter, fall, whenever.”

Burrage said if proceedings went ahead Monday without a defence lawyer, Butt would not receive a fair trial.

“We’ll be no further ahead,” the judge said.

“It leaves me with no choice other than to adjourn the trial scheduled for Monday. To do otherwise would result in a trial that’s less than fair.”

Burrage set Butt’s case over until April 2, telling him a new trial date would be set at that time for the earliest date defence lawyers were available.

“In other words, we can set a date beginning in May, or beginning in June, or beginning in July, or beginning in August and so forth,” Burrage said.

Gosse and her supporters hugged each other before leaving the courtroom. A family member told reporters Gosse would not comment.

The circumstances of Quinn’s death have sparked both outrage and an outpouring of support for Gosse and her family, with vigils and fundraising events arranged in the girl’s honour. “Quinn’s Place” playground was opened outside Paradise Elementary School, where Quinn was set to start kindergarten the year she died, and the H. Ross Sheppard Memorial Playground in Harbour Grace got a new pink and purple slide in Quinn’s honour. Some rooms at Iris Kirby House, a shelter for women and children fleeing abusive relationships, were renovated in the little girl’s name.

Butt has been in custody since his arrest in 2016. Last year, he was reportedly stabbed by fellow inmate Justin Jordan during recreation period, but was not seriously injured. Jordan was charged with attempted murder, and when he was escorted into court last June, told reporters, “Put your hands in the air for baby Quinn!”

Butt’s Carbonear home was torn down 10 months after Quinn died, the demolition paid for by CIBC, which held the mortgage on the property.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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