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Murder trial for men who escaped Vancouver Island prison adjourned after accused suffers back injury

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The second day of trial for two inmates accused of killing a man after they escaped from a minimum-security prison near Victoria was adjourned before it began Tuesday.

A lawyer for Zachary Armitage, who is charged with first-degree murder alongside co-accused James Lee Busch, told the judge that Armitage could not attend the proceedings Tuesday due to a back injury.

Armitage and Busch are charged with killing 60-year-old Martin Payne in July 2019, one day after the pair walked away from William Head Institution, located about eight kilometres from the victim's home in Metchosin, B.C.

Justice David Crossin dismissed the jury until Wednesday, when the proceedings are scheduled to continue.

Crossin told the jury at the start of the trial that although the men are being tried together, their guilt or innocence should be determined individually.

Armitage and Busch escaped from William Head Institution on the evening of July 7, 2019, prompting a region-wide manhunt.

The pair were arrested approximately 48 hours later after commenting on a man's dog while walking together in Esquimalt, B.C.

The dog walker, an off-duty RCMP homicide detective, recognized the men as the escaped prisoners and called Victoria police, who arrested them.

WITNESS SAYS SHE RECEIVED CALL FROM ARMITAGE

Earlier that afternoon, Payne's red Ford F-150 pickup truck was found abandoned on Woodburn Avenue in Oak Bay, B.C.

A witness testified Monday that on the day of the killing she received a phone call from Armitage that the Crown said came from the landline in Payne's home.

Crown prosecutor Sofia Bakken said Payne was killed in his home after returning from his job as a mail carrier in Victoria the day after the two men escaped.

The court heard Armitage and Busch escaped the institution by walking along the shoreline at low tide.

Bakken outlined some of the evidence and the witnesses the jury is set to hear from in support of the Crown's theory that Armitage and Busch killed Payne to further their escape, including a forensic specialist expected to testify about finding three identifiable DNA profiles in the victim's home: Payne’s, and those of the accused.

DNA matching Armitage's was also identified on the butt of a cigarette found in Payne's truck, she said.

Another expert is set to testify about activity on Payne's computer after he had left home for work, including internet searches for news articles related to escaped prisoners from William Head Institution, the phrase "private water taxi" and the name "Zachary Armitage," Bakken told the court.

The recording of a phone call from the landline in Payne's home to a water taxi service will be played in court later in the trial, she said, and an officer who worked at the prison is expected to testify about recognizing Armitage's voice.

'SIGNIFICANT' AMOUNT OF BLOOD AT SCENE

The Crown's first witness was a woman who testified that she and Armitage met while he was incarcerated at Mission Institution in B.C.'s Fraser Valley around 2014, and they later fell in love.

She said he called her on the morning of July 8, 2019, the day Payne would later be killed.

That call came from the landline in Payne's home, the Crown said.

There was a "significant" amount of blood in Payne's home, Bakken said, and a pathologist is also expected to testify about identifying "chop wounds" to the victim's skull that were consistent with those inflicted by a hatchet.

Officers found the victim on the floor of his bathroom three days after he was killed, Bakken said.

The Crown's second witness was Jeffrey Cashin, who testified that he worked at William Head Institution for close to 30 years before retiring, and he had been involved in searching for Armitage and Busch after their escape.

Under cross-examination by Armitage's defence lawyer, James Heller, Cashin agreed that inmates had to earn some measure of trust in order to end up at the institution. He said they live in clusters of duplexes to which they are not confined during the day, and they participate in various work or rehabilitation activities.

Security measures include alarms that are activated on the duplex doors every night at 10 p.m., checks and counts throughout the day to ensure all inmates are accounted for, and cameras on the institution's property, Cashin told the court.

Cashin testified he reviewed security footage showing Busch and Armitage walking around the institution's fence line around the time of their escape.

Heller asked if the men had weapons with them, and Cashin said he didn't know.

Armitage's lawyer suggested Busch may have had a hatchet, possibly taken from an Indigenous-focused program at the institution, and Cashin repeated that he couldn't say, and he wasn't aware of such a weapon being taken from William Head.

'MARTY WAS DEEPLY LOVED'

Multiple police agencies, led by the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit, investigated Payne's death for nearly a year before announcing the charges against Armitage and Busch in June 2020.

"Marty was deeply loved by his tight circle of friends and family and we have continued to mourn his senseless loss every day for the past 11 months," the family said in a statement when the charges were announced.

"The man who was taken from us was an exceptionally gentle and caring human being whose love, support, and encouragement were unfailing," the family said.

Both Busch and Armitage were violent offenders at the time of their escape.

Busch, then 42 years old, was serving an indeterminate sentence for second-degree murder and assault, and was also serving time for aggravated sexual assault and escape from custody.

Armitage, who was 30 years old and had also previously escaped from custody, was serving a nearly 14-year sentence for robbery, aggravated assault and other offences.

The Correctional Service of Canada launched a review of every inmate in minimum-security custody across the country in the wake of the escape.

The review led the department to reclassify 14 minimum-security offenders and move them to medium-security prisons.

Nine of the 14 inmates who the correctional service found to be misclassified were at William Head, including Armitage and Busch.

On Monday, the judge explained to the 12 members of the jury that they must be sure of each man's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt if they are to deliver guilty verdicts.

Sitting on the other side of a glass barrier in front of the victim's family members, Busch wore a grey sport jacket and collared shirt with a short, slicked-back ponytail, while Armitage had a buzz cut and wore a T-shirt layered over a long-sleeved shirt.

The trial is scheduled to last five weeks.

With files from The Canadian Press and CTV Vancouver's Ben Miljure

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