Appeal court upholds Denecho King’s convictions
Denecho King’s attempt to have his convictions for murder and aggravated assault overturned by the NWT Court of Appeal has been denied.
The three-person appeal court panel heard arguments on June 16 and released a 12-page judgment on Monday. It rejected all four of King’s appeal grounds and upheld Supreme Court Justice Andrew Mahar’s April 2018 verdict for the then 25-year old.
King will now serve his life sentence – with no chance of parole for 12 years – for the murder of John Wifladt and aggravated assault of Colin Digness. The two men were attacked with ornamental swords early in the morning of December 14, 2014, at Yellowknife’s Sunridge Apartments.
King argued to the territory’s highest court – which met online for the first time under pandemic-related public health constraints – that while this was “an unusual case,” his request to have his convictions overturned was warranted.
King raised the following issues on appeal:
- Did the trial judge improperly admit highly prejudicial evidence of the appellant’s bad character, misunderstand that evidence, and misdirect himself as to the use that could be made of it?
- Were the opinions of the DNA expert founded on the evidence and, if not, did the trial judge err in relying on his opinions?
- Did the trial judge hold the Crown to a lesser standard of proof than proof beyond a reasonable doubt and place an onus on the appellant to prove exculpatory facts?
- Did the trial judge equate the honesty of a witness with accuracy and reliability of memory?
The appeal court panel – comprising Calgary Justice JDB McDonald, Iqaluit Justice Susan Cooper, and Edmonton Justice Dawn Pentelechuk – rejected all of King’s arguments. At one point they characterized King’s position as “speculation and fanciful speculation at that.”
“The fact remains that the appellant was unquestionably at the Sunridge Apartments building during the critical time frame; his DNA was present in large quantities on the handles of both the medium and long swords; he acted out a pantomime which was highly suggestive of an attack with swords; and he told [a witness] about ‘defending himself from a couple of guys with a bat or something,'” the decision stated.
‘Compelling’ DNA evidence
According to the facts of the case, early in the morning of December 14, 2014, Wifladt and Digness were discovered seriously injured and covered in blood near the open door to Digness’ apartment unit. Wifladt subsequently died of massive blood loss while Digness suffered significant long-term injuries.
Digness owned three Japanese-style ornamental swords with blunted edges that were normally on a display stand in his apartment. When police arrived they found the display overturned, all the swords out of their sheaths, and the two longer swords covered with blood located near the men’s bodies.
The undisputed evidence, the appeal court’s judgment recounted, showed that Digness was injured with the medium sword and Wifladt was fatally injured with the long sword.
Wifladt died without regaining consciousness. Digness, due to his injuries and possibly his level of intoxication, had no memory of what had occurred. There were no eyewitnesses to the attack.
The trial by judge lasted four weeks with the Crown calling 37 witnesses. Most of the evidence was not challenged by the defence. At issue was the identity of the attacker.
Key evidence at trial included that the victims were long-time best friends with no history of fighting one another. That night they had been drinking at a bar and then a house party. They arrived by taxi at Digness’ apartment at Sunridge Apartments at 4:08am.
King had been drinking that afternoon and evening. He entered the Sunridge Apartments building at approximately 4am.
At approximately 4:20am, neighbours who heard loud banging found the two men on the floor with blood everywhere and called an ambulance.
Following the attack, King continued to drink in a room at the Northern Lites Motel, where he interacted with other people.
An RCMP forensics team found King’s DNA in large quantities on the handles of the two bloodied swords. The trial judge found the DNA expert’s opinion – that this was evidence of primary transfer – to be “compelling and potentially damning.”
The trial judge concluded the defence theories were highly implausible and unlikely, and that the only rational conclusion was that King used the swords to injure Digness and ultimately kill Wifladt.