A man convicted of second-degree murder and interfering with a body in the death of a Japanese student in Vancouver will receive a new trial.
The British Columbia Court of Appeal ruled in a split decision Tuesday to allow an appeal filed by William Schneider, who was convicted of killing 30-year-old Natsumi Kogawa.
Schneider pleaded guilty to interfering with her body, admitting that he disposed of her remains in the city's West End in 2016, but denying that he killed her.
He was convicted on both counts following a jury trial and filed an appeal, arguing the judge erred in admitting an overheard telephone conversation as evidence.
Two of three Appeal Court judges agreed that the phone call overheard by Schneider's brother should not have been admitted and ordered a new trial for the man.
The brother testified he heard Schneider say, “I did it,” or “I killed her,” but didn't hear the other side of the conversation and didn't know if he'd been asked an unrelated question.
The call was between Schneider and his wife, who could not be compelled to testify because she lives in Japan.
Justice Richard Goepel wrote that without the context for Schneider's alleged statements, the jury could not reasonably determine the meaning of the words.
“I am of the view that no properly instructed jury could conclude that the overheard fragment was an admission. Accordingly, it is not relevant and should not have been put before the jury,” Goepel wrote, with Justice Mary Saunders concurring.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Joyce DeWitt-Van Oosten wrote that the jury was made aware of the frailties of the phone call evidence and told to weigh it appropriately.
Kogawa, a Japanese citizen in Canada on a student visa, was reported missing in September 2016 and her naked body was found in a suitcase two weeks later.
The trial heard an autopsy found two medications in her body, a sleeping pill and an anti-anxiety drug, the latter of which had been prescribed to Schneider.
The autopsy found no evidence of major injuries and the pathologist was unable to determine cause of death, but did not rule out overdose or suffocation, the trial heard.
After police told the public about Kogawa's disappearance, Schneider's brother contacted officers and told them Schneider had told him the location of her body.
The Crown's theory at trial was that Schneider and Kogawa were on a date when he became angry because she had to leave. He killed her by smothering or asphyxiating her, using his hand to block her mouth and nose, the Crown argued.
His conversations with his brother, an attempted suicide and a statement to police in which he said her death was “his fault” were all presented as evidence by the Crown.
The defence argued that the Crown did not prove that anyone caused Kogawa's death, let alone Schneider. Placing her body in a suitcase does not prove murder, it said.
Instead, the defence argued he panicked after she died for an unknown reason and then made “very poor decisions” about how to respond.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2021.