Family and friends of Jennifer Donovan gathered outside of the Peace River Courthouse before the judge gave his verdict on April 4. Photo courtesy of Wendy Goulet.

It was a packed courtroom April 4, 2023 as family and friends awaited the court’s decision in the Victorine Jennifer Donovan murder trial in Peace River, AB.

Peace River’s Mathew Blachford was accused of brutally murdering the Indigenous woman outside of her apartment in October 2019. Although there was evidence of Blachford being in the parking lot at the same time as the woman’s death and her DNA being found on his pants, the Justice found there was reasonable doubt about the identity of the killer.

“The combination of these factors would make it very dangerous to find that identification has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Justice Henderson said during his reasoning.

Donovan and Blachford had known one another off and on for years, according to the court report, a result of Blachford purchasing cocaine from Donovan. According to court findings, these meetings totaled over 100 occasions through the months of September and October.

The evening before her murder, Donovan was visiting a friend at an apartment complex approximately one block away, where Donovan’s son described some “sketchy street people” to have been. It was noted in the report that Donovan left the person’s apartment between 12:45 a.m. and 1 a.m. on Oct. 8. A neighbour from an adjacent apartment to Donovan’s heard a female voice saying, “What the hell are you doing?” as he sat on his deck smoking in the early morning hours of Oct. 8.

Assuming it was neighbours fighting, he disregarded the initial comment. A few minutes later, though, he heard the sound of gurgling and became concerned, standing up to see the silhouette of a man kicking and stomping something in the parking lot. The view was too dark and covered by trees to identify if the person was indeed a man and to identify without question who the person was.

The neighbour, after watching for a short time, decided to put his coat on and go to check what was happening. As he approached the parking lot, he noticed a toque and mittens lying on the ground and as he rounded the corner of a vehicle saw Donovan’s body.

The court report says, “In the early morning hours October 8, 2019, Mr. Blachford was driving a grey or silver 4-door Dodge Avenger. The Avenger had black wheels and a spoiler on the trunk. Mr. Blachford drove the Avenger to a Fas Gas station and convenience store in downtown Peace River. He arrived at 1:03 a.m., went into the convenience store and made a purchase, left the store at 1:04 a.m., got back in the Avenger, and drove away at 1:05.”

Police located and seized video surveillance footage from various places in Peace River, the Avenger to conduct forensic testing (on which they found two areas of interest, both confirming to have Donovan’s DNA but neither blood).

The police also searched Blachford’s home and found a pair of jeans in the garbage with three stains. The jeans were submitted for analysis, each sample confirmed to contain blood, but testing could not determine if the blood was from a human or an animal. The three spots all contained Donovan’s DNA.

No blood or Donovan’s DNA could be found on Blachford’s footwear, his vehicle’s doorhandle, floormat, brake or gas pedal.

Although various videos of the accused were obtained from various locations showing him to be in the area of the murder, no videos were found indicating he committed the crime. It was also indicated that because of the lack of clarity in critical portions of video evidence, many could not establish guilt.

Statements that were taken from the accused were not taken under oath and were not subject to cross-examination, making them inadmissible.

“Despite the compelling nature of the Crown’s argument, I am not able to accede to the Crown’s position,” wrote Justice Henderson in his report. “The Crown’s submissions fail to consider the frailties in the evidence and the absence of evidence on the record before me. When I consider the totality of the evidence, I conclude that it is not possible to draw the inference that Mr. Blachford was Ms. Donovan’s assailant.”

A DNA expert could not identify when Donovan’s DNA was deposited on Blachford’s jeans, whether the DNA was from the blood or from another substance such as saliva, phlegm, skin, hair or another bodily substance, couldn’t determine if the DNA was from direct, secondary or tertiary transfer, and could not determine if the blood detected was from a human or animal.

In addition, there was expert evidence from a doctor indicating that cocaine and crystal meth increased chance for nose bleeds, and because Ms. Donovan was a regular user of both that this could cause the small deposits on the jeans.

In a Facebook post, Donovan’s son Christian sent a heartfelt message to his mother.

“I wish that I am able to say that you can finally rest and be at true peace, and the rest of us can properly grieve and heal from our tremendous loss, but that’s not the case,” says Christian. “Our sisters, mothers, and daughters are stolen away from us way too often in this country and too often justice isn’t a reality their families see in their lifetime. We are humans too and deserved to be treated as such. Please say a prayer for our family, we are all in need.”

By Emily Plihal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 14, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   South Peace News   High Prairie, Alberta

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