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CityNews Rewind 2012: The Michael Rafferty trial

Michael Rafferty is transported from the courthouse in the back of police cruiser in London, Ontario, March, 14, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

In May, a jury of nine women and three men cemented Michael Rafferty’s place among the most reviled criminals in Canadian history, handing down a guilty verdict for the kidnapping, rape and brutal murder of eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford.

The conviction delivered Rafferty a similar fate as his crime partner, Terri-Lynne McClintic, who earlier pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of the Grade 3 student from Woodstock, Ont. Both are serving life sentences with no chance for parole for 25 years – Rafferty at the Kingston Penitentiary and McClintic at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.

After three years of grief and anger, Tori’s family shed tears of relief when Rafferty’s conviction ended a chapter of their ordeal in a trial that gripped the province and the country.

Click here to read other stories in our CityNews Rewind 2012 series.

Tori’s father Rodney Stafford explained the flood of emotions stirred in him by the guilty verdict.

“Happy, excitement, but at the same time it’s a sense of loss because Tori’s not coming home,” he said outside the London, Ont., courthouse on May 11 after Rafferty’s verdict was delivered, just over three years after Tori was brutally murdered.

“But we got it. We got the justice.”

Tori’s abduction

Tori was kidnapped from her school on April 8, 2009, sparking one of the largest searches in Canadian history.

McClintic confessed while being questioned by police on May 19, 2009, and Rafferty was arrested the same day.

Two months later, on July 19, investigators found Tori’s decomposed remains under a pile of heavy rocks under a tree, based on sketches McClintic provided of the scene and cellphone records. The child had been badly beaten and was found wearing only a Hannah Montana T-shirt.

During the trial, jurors visited the secluded section of the farmer’s field where Tori’s family’s worst fears were confirmed.

Rafferty’s trial

The trial, which started March 6 and included disturbing testimony about Tori’s horrific final hours, lasted more than two months. Rafferty did not testify in his own defence.

Rafferty’s trial lawyer Dirk Derstine portrayed his client as a bystander in McClintic’s evil plan. McClintic was Rafferty’s girlfriend at the time and has a history of violence, twisted writings and drug use.

McClintic was the key witness for the Crown, which insisted Rafferty was in control and she did his bidding out of desperation for love. The pair had scoped out other potential victims by driving past homes of single mothers, McClintic told the court.

Sixty-two witnesses testified, including Tori’s mother Tara McDonald and Tori’s teacher, who outlined the class activities on the child’s final day – her jumping in puddles, goofing around during art time and doing computer research.

Jurors heard from women from Rafferty’s past and learned how he juggled more than a dozen girlfriends in the time just before Tori was murdered up to his arrest. One woman told the court she gave Rafferty nearly $17,000 she earned as an escort.

The court heard from experts and police officers, but the trial revolved around McClintic’s testimony.

She outlined in horrifying detail Tori’s kidnapping, the car ride, the rape and her brutal murder. The court also heard about McClintic’s violent tendencies and disturbing journals, her troubled past and drug abuse.

While Rafferty waited in his car parked in a nearby retirement home, McClintic said she approached Tori – the only child alone outside after class at Oliver Stephens Public School – and lured her away with a promise to show her a Shih Tzu dog.

With Tori in the back seat, Rafferty and McClintic drove out of Woodstock and stopped at a Tim Hortons and a Home Depot, to buy a hammer and garbage bags, before reaching the murder scene – an isolated area in Mount Forest, about 100 kilometres north of Woodstock.

McClintic’s unexpected change in story — admitting on the stand that she was the one who killed Tori and not Rafferty, as she’d maintained since her arrest — provided a challenge for the Crown.

After security images were released of McClintic, known then only as the woman in the white coat, Rafferty bought blonde hair dye for her to throw off investigators.

Investigators found blood in the rear doorframe of Rafferty’s car that a forensic biologist said was nearly certainly Tori’s. There was only a one in 150 trillion chance it didn’t belong to her. A spot of her blood was also found in his gym bag.  After the murder he threw out the back seat of his Honda Civic.

What the jury didn’t hear

Also highly disturbing were the details the jury did not hear: the content found on Rafferty’s laptop including online searches for “real child rape,” copious amounts of child pornography and a film about child abduction downloaded less than two weeks before Tori was killed. Ontario Superior Court Justice Thomas Heeney said the computer contents couldn’t be used because the police search for them violated Rafferty’s Charter rights.

The court also never got to hear from women Rafferty had dated that described his penchant for sexual choking and his “disconcerting” behaviour toward some of their kids. That information never made it to court because it was considered bad character evidence, which generally isn’t used at trial.

The decomposed state of the Tori’s remains also provided a challenge because there was no DNA evidence to prove a sexual assault. The jury determined the sexual attack had happened based on McClintic’s testimony and the fact the girl was only partially clothed when her remains were found.

The jury was also shown pathologist photos of Tori’s remains – a presentation that prompted the girl’s father to leave the courtroom and drew sobs from her mother.

And while Tori’s family fought to suppress rage and tears, Rafferty spent much of the trial rolling his eyes, muttering and scribbling on his notepad. Rafferty wore a purple shirt and tie in court at one point – the colour adopted by Tori’s family in remembrance because it was the child’s favourite colour.

After more than two months of harrowing testimony and exhibits, Rodney Stafford reminded the media that people should remember his daughter and not those responsible for her death.

Clutching his daughter’s Grade 3 school photo, he said: “It was all for this little girl right here. Not just Tori, but for every little child in Canada that doesn’t deserve what happened to her.”

Rafferty’s appeal application

During his sentencing, Rafferty delivered an apology to Tori’s family but said he doesn’t agree with the jury’s findings. He was convicted of first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and kidnapping.

In a hand-written note submitted in August, Rafferty said he wants a new jury trial.

“The jury failed to apprehend the evidentiary requirement to convict for first-degree murder,” according to his handwritten notice. He also claims the judge failed to properly instruct the jury.

Justice Heeney delivered complex instructions to the jury that saw 190 exhibits and heard testimony from 62 people. At sentencing, Heeney described Rafferty as a “monster.”

In November, the Ontario Court of Appeal granted Rafferty’s request for an extension on his appeal.

With files from The Canadian Press

Click here to read other stories in our CityNews Rewind 2012 series.