WARNING: This story contains graphic details.
It is a cramped, little room. The walls are lined with white acoustic tiles and the floor is an intense green. Two chairs are positioned facing each other, close enough together that anyone sitting in them would almost be touching knees.
William Sandeson spent nearly 24 hours in this room at police headquarters, beginning on Aug. 18, 2015.
Investigators peppered him with questions about what had happened in his apartment three nights before, when Taylor Samson, a 22-year-old physics student at Dalhousie University, was shot and killed.
As part of the police interrogation, they reminded Sandeson, who was 23 at the time, of part of the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” Doctors take that oath, and Sandeson was days away from starting medical school when he was arrested.
Jurors in his first murder trial in 2017 listened to most of that interrogation, as the video was played in court. But it’s one of the pieces of evidence the jury at his current murder trial largely did not see.
Lawyers for both sides made their closing arguments on Wednesday. Sandeson’s lawyer argued that he killed Samson in self-defence over a drug deal that went bad. The Crown claimed Sandeson was deep in debt and wanted to avoid paying for the nine kilograms of marijuana Samson had brought to the apartment.
With the jurors now cut off from outside contact as they deliberate whether Sandeson is guilty of first-degree murder, what they did not hear can now be reported.
6 different stories
In the police interrogation video, Sandeson recounts six different stories about what happened in his apartment the night of Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. None of those stories had Sandeson pulling the trigger. Instead, he talked about gang members climbing through his apartment window to kill Samson and spirit away his body.
When Sandeson was arrested, police suspected him of kidnapping Samson and cautioned him about his rights relating to that charge. But as the interrogation continued and investigators extracted more evidence from his phone and his apartment, they shifted their focus and it became a murder investigation.
In the seven years since he was arrested and interrogated, Sandeson’s lawyers have argued that he should have been given a second warning by police to reflect the murder charge. He wasn’t.
In pretrial motions leading up to the current trial, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice James Chipman agreed that Sandeson’s rights had been breached. Chipman ruled that the current jury would not see any of the later police interrogations, only the initial one in which Sandeson was questioned as a witness and not as a suspect.
That left Sandeson free to outline a seventh version of events to the current jury, in which he admitted to the shooting, but claimed he acted out of self-defence.
Very different trials
The judge and lawyers in the current trial went to great lengths to shield the jury from information about the 2017 trial. But as many of the same witnesses were called to testify, it became necessary to refer to transcripts of what they said at the 2017 trial, in order to jog their memories about what they had seen in August 2015.
The judge finally gave a mid-trial instruction, acknowledging the 2017 trial but admonishing jurors not to think about it.
This current trial has gone more smoothly than did the one in 2017, which saw many interruptions in which the jury was sent out of the courtroom while the lawyers argued. One of those arguments was over whether a mistrial should be declared because a private detective hired by the defence had passed information to police.
The original judge denied the mistrial request. But it became the basis of a successful appeal, which led to the current trial.
Sandeson’s lawyer made another bid for a mistrial in the months leading up to the current trial, once again focusing on the actions of the private detective. But Justice Chipman rejected that argument.
The information the private detective passed on relates to the most dramatic moments in both murder trials: the testimony of Justin Blades and Pookiel McCabe. The two men said that moments after they heard a gunshot, they saw a large man slumped over in Sandeson’s apartment, bleeding to death.
There are other things that neither jury saw, including a text message allegedly sent by Sandeson four or five weeks before Samson was killed. In the text, Sandeson threatened to dismember his girlfriend if he found out she had been unfaithful to him.
The text message led to speculation that Sandeson had dismembered Samson’s body and perhaps dissolved it using chemicals, as he had threatened to do to his girlfriend. But during the current trial, Sandeson claimed he put Samson’s body in a duffel bag, drove it from Halifax to Truro, N.S., and dumped it in a stream leading to the Bay of Fundy.
While the jury in the 2017 trial saw most of the police interrogation video, they didn’t see a section in which an officer called Sandeson a “piece of shit” in the course of trying to elicit an answer from him. The judge in the 2017 trial accepted that the exchange was highly prejudicial to Sandeson, so it was edited out of the version that was shown to that jury.
It remains to be seen whether withholding all of this information will impact the current jury as it deliberates.