Surprise guilty plea ends murder trial

The trial of a man accused of the first-degree killing of a Salmon Arm woman ended suddenly when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Partway through Monday's hearing, Justice William Ehrcke dismissed the seven men and five women on the jury. Ronald Menard then pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years, following a joint submission from lawyers.

In March 2008, Menard was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole for 25 years. He appealed his conviction and was granted a second trial.

This time around, however, Justice Ehrcke excluded a key statement the accused man made to an RCMP interrogator in the hours after his arrest. He ruled the man's rights were violated and his damning confession should not be allowed as evidence.

The lack of that key evidence "changed the landscape" of the trial, lawyers agreed, leading the Crown to accept the plea to the lesser charge, one that will see the man free to seek parole in six more years.

Menard was charged with first-degree murder in August 2006, more than a year after Diane Ellison was found strangled to death in her apartment, her shirt hiked up and her pants pulled down around her knees.

The Crown alleged there was a sexual component to the killing, something that made the killing a first-degree murder case.

Menard denied he was sexually motivated the first time he confessed the killing to an undercover officer, saying only he was strung out on crack. But when he was interviewed after his arrest by an RCMP interrogator, his story was different.

In August 2008, Menard told Const. Mark Davidson he was addicted as much to sex as he was to crack cocaine and found the two at times inseparable. He also talked at length about his drug habit and how it became intertwined with sexual fantasy.

Menard said that soon after he started using crack, he discovered he could use it to manipulate crack-addicted women into sexual situations.

"That's what it was," he says to Const. Davidson in a conversation recorded on video. "I didn't get addicted to crack - I got addicted to the (sex) that came with it."

"I would order two whores at a time," he added, saying everything to do with his crack use was sex related.

Regardless, Menard continued to deny he tried to sexually assault Ellison, although he conceded he removed her pants and lifted her shirt after she was dead.

The accused man told Davidson he was at Ellison's house smoking crack with her when things went wrong. He told the officer he likes to have his own space around him when he gets high and suggested she somehow intruded on that.

"I put her in a sleeper (hold), I really don't know," he told Davidson. "And I knew I was too far in. She was hurt obviously."

"There is no doubt in my mind a portion of what happened to Diane was going to be a sex act," Davidson said to Menard. "My question, were you going to force sex on her after she was dead, or before?"

"If it would have been anything, it would have been before," Menard said, quickly adding he almost never had sex with the women he manipulated because smoking crack frequently left him impotent.

"It was a visual and a mental thing," he said, adding he didn't want to go to prison labelled as a sexual offender. "There was no way sex was going to happen; it couldn't. It physically couldn't."

At the start of this trial, John Gustafson, Menard's lawyer, asked the court to exclude the statement to RCMP, arguing his client's constitutional rights were violated because he never had the chance to speak to the lawyer of his choice.

Gustafson argued while Menard was allowed to talk to a free duty-counsel lawyer, he was never happy with the advice he got, something he expressed to Const. Davidson. Despite that, the man was never given another chance to speak with the lawyer he wanted.

Gustafson told The Daily News Tuesday the RCMP might not have acted in bad faith when they denied Menard a proper chance to get legal advice, but clearly they did not understand the law.

The breach of Menard's rights was significant, Gustafson said.

Menard was confused about why he had been charged with first-degree murder and might not have had the conversation he did with Davidson had he fully understood his legal predicament, the lawyer said.

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