A prosecutor described Matthew McKnight as a 'sexual barracuda' who plied women with 'free drinks, on the house'
Matthew McKnight, a former promoter for some of Edmonton biggest nightclubs, has been convicted of five of the 13 counts of sexual assault he faced.
After 14 weeks of trial, jurors delivered their verdict just before noon Thursday. McKnight, 33, sat in the prisoner’s box wearing a grey suit and tie. He did not outwardly react to the verdict. After the verdict, he hugged his mother, who sat in the courtroom in tears.
Justice Doreen Sulyma said McKnight is not a flight risk and is under strict conditions. She allowed McKnight to remain out on bail. He will next be in court on Feb. 7 to set a date for sentencing.
McKnight’s case was Edmonton’s highest-profile sexual assault trial of the Me Too era. McKnight pleaded not guilty to all charges, claiming he and the women engaged in consensual sex.
The trial, scheduled to run 48 days, ended up lasting 62. Three of the jurors had to be discharged for other commitments, leaving just 10 for final deliberations — the minimum required for a criminal trial. The jury deliberated for nearly 26 hours before reaching its verdict.
The Crown alleged McKnight was a “predator.” Lead prosecutor Mark Huyser-Wierenga described him as a “sexual barracuda” who plied women with “free drinks, on the house.”
The defence claimed the women regretted their experiences with McKnight and “re-characterized” what happened as sexual assault after learning of the police investigation.
The women, who were between the ages of 17 and 22, drank at bars where McKnight was a promoter on the night of the alleged assaults.
Each said they did not or could not have consented to sex with McKnight. All but three directly alleged or hinted at having been drugged, though the Crown never offered any direct evidence to support the drugging theory.
McKnight worked as a club promoter on contract with Urban Sparq Hospitality, an Edmonton company founded in 2002 which describes itself as “one of North America’s premier hospitality companies.”
During his own testimony, McKnight described his duties as doling out free drinks, arranging limo rides and pub crawls, and generally making sure patrons were happy.
One of the women, the eighth of 12 to testify, described being approached by McKnight while out with a group of friends at the Old Strathcona Rack, a defunct Whyte Ave. night club. Her name, as with all complainants in sexual assault cases, is protected by a publication ban.
McKnight, in the woman’s telling, offered a free ride in a limo to Knoxville’s, a Jasper Avenue nightclub near his downtown condo. He then ordered shots.
The woman later recalled stumbling into a limo. She gathers she and her friends went to Knoxville’s, but said she has no memory of being there. She came to in McKnight’s kitchen, then remembers being in his darkened bedroom with McKnight on top of her.
The woman described McKnight as “aggressive,” and said she was unable to move or cry out. She claims he refused to use a condom. “When is this over?” she recalled thinking. “How do I get out of here alive? Oh my God, this hurts so bad.”
The woman went to a hospital near her home outside Edmonton a few days later and underwent a rape kit.
Another woman described regaining her memory in McKnight’s apartment after blacking out. She believed she remembers the incident out of fear, recalling she repeatedly told McKnight she didn’t want to have sex and was on her period.
“She brought up her period because her ‘nos’ weren’t working,” prosecutor Katherine Fraser told the jury.
McKnight was found guilty of both assaults, which occurred in 2016 and 2010, respectively.
37 witnesses called
McKnight took the stand in his own defence and produced text messages, photos and other evidence from the nights in question. The defence called 16 witnesses to the Crown’s 21, including a memory expert and several of McKnight’s friends.
Huyser-Wierenga grilled McKnight about his seemingly selective memory, asking why he was able to recall specific details about mundane events that took place in bars years ago. McKnight estimated he had between 200 and 300 sexual partners in the years in question, with the Crown suggesting he wouldn’t have detailed recall of a dozen specific encounters.
Huyser-Wierenga also asked McKnight how he managed to be struck by lightning 13 times — his metaphor for a false accusation. McKnight pointed to police news releases issued after the initial complainants came forward, likening them to a lightning rod.
During opening arguments, defence attorney Dino Bottos invoked the Me Too movement, saying his client is being prosecuted at a time when many say victims should be believed automatically.
“If you believe just based on sympathy, that could be a miscarriage of justice,” he said.
During Bottos’ examination, McKnight repeatedly denied drugging any women. He said he was ashamed of his behaviour — he called himself a “male slut” whose life revolved around drinking and casual sex — but maintained he did not sexually assault anyone.
One complainant was in the courtroom Thursday to hear the verdict.
Huyser-Wierenga was unsuccessful in the Crown’s bid to have McKnight’s bail revoked. Bottos argued McKnight posed no public safety or flight risk, and that he had no breaches in his previous 3.5 years on bail. Bottos added McKnight was badly beaten during an earlier stay at the Edmonton Remand Centre.
The 13 counts ran in consecutive order from 2010 to 2016. Notably, McKnight was found not guilty of assaulting the first two women to come forward to police.
During closing arguments, Bottos addressed the overarching question of the trial: how could 13 women, who don’t know each other, all be lying?
“It’s not up to Mr. McKnight to show why or prove why,” Bottos told the jury, suggesting that the central theme of the trial is “one of regret.”
Bottos suggested the women felt “buyer’s remorse” for sleeping with McKnight after hearing his reputation for promiscuity.
“When we experience buyer’s regret, what we’re really experiencing is the dread that we paid too much,” Bottos said. “Sometimes we pay too much with our own integrity, with our own idea of who we are. ‘Why did I do that, that’s not me … why did I do that, I was drunk.’”
Bottos said the women’s stories were inconsistent. He said one of the women — who he suggested was “patient zero” for the drugging “rumours” — changed her story from having 11 drinks on the night in question to two drinks followed by one “overpowering” drink given to her by McKnight.
An Edmonton police media release — issued in August 2016 after three women came forward — created the conditions for additional women to “re-characterize” their experiences with McKnight, Bottos argued.
“It was a rallying cry,” he said. “We’ve got a serial rapist in downtown Edmonton. If you slept with this serial rapist, come on down. That’s what happened. That’s why it was irresponsible.”
Bottos also repeatedly raised questions about why the case’s lead detective, Dave Pelech, wasn’t called to give evidence.
“There was evidence, during the interviews of a few of these complainants, of police providing advice, rather than just gathering information,” Bottos said, adding that leaves questions about “his role in how these charges came about and how the evidence came forward.”
Crown prosecutor Fraser urged the jury to convict McKnight. She called the women’s testimony “compelling” and suggested their memory of a “traumatic” event would be clearer than McKnight’s version of events.
“It’s completely improbable each of the … complainants would lie about or completely misunderstand her night with Mr. McKnight,” she said.
She also said the defence relied on “rape myths” — a legally prohibited line of reasoning about how a sexual assault victim ought to act. The idea that a woman who is being sexually assaulted should scream, fight back and later avoid her attacker is a common example of a rape myth.
The Crown declined to comment on the case.
After the verdict Bottos gave a news conference standing alongside McKnight and his mother, who attended most of the trial. McKnight did not speak during the scrum.
Bottos said McKnight was disappointed and saddened by the verdict, and considering avenues of appeal.
A year ago, the defence team sought to have the charges split into as many as 13 separate trials, which would have benefited McKnight, Bottos said. Instead, he faced 13 accusers at the same time.
“We always knew this would be a difficult case to win, to run the table essentially on 13 counts,” Bottos said.
“We did our best. We brought every witness conceivable that was available to show that Matthew was innocent. Unfortunately, although he was acquitted of eight counts, he was still convicted of five.”
Why the jury chose to convict on some charges and acquit on others will likely remain a mystery. Canadian jurors are prohibited from publicly discussing their deliberations.
The starting point sentence for a major sexual assault in Alberta is three years.
—with files from Anna Junker and Moira Wyton