NEWS

Shafia Trial Judge Gives Final Instructions To Jury

01/27/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 01/28/2012 09:54 EST
AP
KINGSTON, Ont. - The fate of a family alleged to have disposed of three rebellious sisters and an unwanted wife by dumping their bodies in a canal in the name of honour is now in the hands of a jury.

The seven women and five men have heard from 58 witnesses and have seen 165 exhibits over about 10 weeks in the trial of three members of the Montreal-based Shafia family, originally from Afghanistan.

The jury must now decide if it believes the Shafias pushed a car containing their four family members into the water in the middle of the night, clumsily staging it as an accident, or if they think it's possible the four unintentionally plunged to their deaths during a joy ride.

Jurors have a daunting task ahead, sifting through hours of statements containing differing versions of events and reams of cellphone and computer evidence, all complicated by a cultural cloud that hangs over this case that prosecutors allege is a so-called honour killing.

The bodies of Shafia sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, as well as their father's first wife in a polygamous marriage, Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, were found June 30, 2009, eerily suspended inside a black Nissan submerged in the locks of a canal in Kingston, Ont.

Police began to suspect remaining members of the family almost from the outset and charged them with four counts each of first-degree murder on July 22, 2009. Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Yahya, 42, and their son Hamed, 21, pleaded not guilty at their trial.

Judge Robert Maranger told the jury Friday they can find the accused guilty of first-degree murder, guilty of second-degree murder or not guilty.

"This was either an accident or the intentional killing of four people made to look like an accident," Maranger said. "If you find that this was not an accident but an intentional killing, then you should have no trouble finding that the accused...had the required state of mind for murder."

But, he said, just because they are all charged with the same offences and are all being tried together, doesn't mean the jury has to render the same verdict for all.

Any of the accused can be found guilty of either degree of murder whether the jury finds they were a principle offender or that they aided or abetted a principle offender, Maranger said.

The difference between first- and second-degree murder, Maranger explained, is that first-degree murder is planned and deliberate.

Trouble in the wealthy Afghan-Canadian family had been brewing for some time, the Crown alleges.

The Crown painted a picture of a household controlled by a domineering Shafia, with Hamed keeping his sisters in line and doling out discipline when his father was away on frequent business trips to Dubai.

The family says Hamed had no such role and Shafia testified on his own behalf that he was a loving and lenient father, liberal in fact.

But when Zainab started dating a Pakistani boy, Shafia was allegedly furious. She ran away from home and came back after a promise she could marry her boyfriend — a marriage the family urged her to annul the day after it took place. But, it's alleged, the damage was done. Zainab was sexually compromised and out of the family's control, the Crown says.

Several Shafia siblings called police the day Zainab ran away, saying their lives were in danger because they feared how Shafia would react, court heard. That was a lie designed to hurt their father, who they blamed for Zainab leaving, testified a surviving brother who can't be identified.

Two surviving siblings of the girls would report to their parents about their now-deceased sisters' behaviour, court heard.

Relatives testified that Shafia had talked to them about wanting to kill Zainab, but Shafia testified that when he came home he forgave his daughter, kissed her on the head and gave her $100.

Sahar too was dating, though she tried to keep it secret from her parents, and wore what the family deemed inappropriate clothing — a picture of her in a short skirt hugging her boyfriend was a focal point of the trial. She was making plans to leave home, and told her Christian boyfriend's aunt two months before she died that if her parents found out about her relationship she was "a dead woman."

The trial heard from a seemingly endless stream of teachers, vice-principals, police officers, social workers and youth protection workers who testified that Sahar and Geeti desperately wanted to leave home because they were afraid of their father.

Those were just stories made up to get attention at school, the family says.

Geeti was becoming almost impossible to control: skipping school, failing classes, being sent home for wearing revealing clothes, stealing and telling almost every authority figure she encountered that she wanted to be sent to foster care, court heard.

Rona was Shafia's first wife but, unable to conceive, her status in the Shafia household began eroding as soon as a young Tooba Yahya was brought in as a polygamous wife, court heard. When the family moved to Canada they referred to Rona as Shafia's cousin and suggested on a visa application that she was domestic help, court heard.

Rona loved everyone in the household and was joyously happy, the family says. She and Yahya were like sisters, and she took long walks for exercise, court heard from various members of the family.

But translated excerpts from Rona's diary tell a different story. She writes that she was not allowed to help run the household, so she spent her days wandering the streets, crying, sitting in her room or using payphones to call relatives.

Shafia beat her and "made life a torture," Rona wrote. Yahya held onto Rona's passport and would tell her "your life is in my hands," Rona wrote. "You are not his wife, you are my servant," Rona recalled Yahya telling her one time. Rona told a relative she was afraid for her life.

The family turmoil came to a head after Zainab's brief mid-May 2009 marriage, and the plot to kill them began to solidify, the Crown says. Having decided to kill Zainab, the Crown suggests it wasn't a stretch for the family to include Sahar, in whose room condoms were discovered. Yahya testified the condoms were found after their deaths.

The writing was on the wall for Geeti, the Crown says. If she was difficult to control at 13, she would become their worst nightmare as she grew up and further rebelled, they say. And she clearly couldn't be counted on to keep family secrets, so she would have to go too, the Crown has put to the jury.

Why Rona? For one, she would not have kept quiet if her beloved girls were killed, especially Sahar, who she raised as her own daughter. But the Crown also says, to the Shafias, Rona was "utterly disposable."

The defence says there simply is no evidence of a motive to kill any of the sisters or Rona. Most of the complaints they made about their family life to authorities, relatives or friends were exaggerations or outright lies, they suggest, typical teenage behaviour, pushing boundaries to gain more freedom.

But the Crown says evidence of a murderous plot taking shape is seen in Hamed's trip to Dubai, where his father was on business. When he went from June 1 to 13 he brought with him pictures of the four soon-to-be deceased, including photos that had been discovered of Sahar with her boyfriend, it's alleged.

Those pictures, the Crown alleges, incited Shafia's rage, but the family maintains the pictures were not found until after the deaths, and that is why Shafia spews venomous tirades about his dead daughters as treacherous whores on wiretaps secretly recorded by police in the days leading to the July 22 arrests.

"Whenever I see those pictures I am consoled," Shafia was recorded as saying. "I say to myself, 'Would they come back to life a hundred times, for you to do the same again?' That is how hurt I am. Tooba, they betrayed us immensely. They violated us immensely. There can be no betrayal, no treachery, no violation more than this."

"Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows ... nothing is more dear to me than my honour," Shafia says on the secret recording.

Shafia testified that when he talks about doing "the same again," he meant giving his daughters good advice and prohibiting them from dating until they completed their education.

What Hamed also brought with him to Dubai, court heard, is the family laptop. Someone conducted Google searches on it, routed through the United Arab Emirates on June 3, inquiring if a prisoner can have control over his real estate.

Starting June 6 there were numerous searches for bodies of water, pictures of such areas and maps. On June 15, one map that was viewed was centred over Kingston Mills locks, where the four family members would be found dead two weeks later.

Beginning June 19, many of the computer searches included the Grand-Remous area of Quebec. The Shafia family vacation to Niagara Falls, Ont., that ended in the deaths began with a jaunt to Grand-Remous, on the Gatineau River and some 450 kilometres out of the way. But the original plan, the family says, was to drive to Vancouver, which would have taken them through that area.

Hamed, or at least his cellphone, also went to Grand-Remous on June 20, records show. About an hour after he allegedly returned home, someone conducted an Internet search for "where to commit a murder."

A surviving Shafia sibling suggested it might have been him doing the search, wanting to kill himself but not knowing the word for suicide. However, he admitted under cross-examination that he had heard the word suicide before and used proper terminology in a call he made to Hamed just before the arrests asking if he should kill himself.

Two days after that Google search Shafia bought a used 2004 black Nissan Sentra for $5,000. When the family left on vacation the next day the family of 10 piled into the Nissan and their Lexus SUV, leaving their minivan at home. The reason, the Crown alleges, is that the minivan was too tall to fit into the locks.

They left Montreal, drove north to Grand-Remous, then south again the next day to Highway 401, stopping June 24 in Kingston so the kids could use the washroom, the Shafias say. The location of that stop was Kingston Mills.

The family spent several days in Niagara Falls, though at one point on June 27, Hamed's cellphone was pinging off a tower close to Kingston Mills. Shafia testified that was him, driving with Hamed's cellphone in the vehicle, intending to go back to Montreal for some business, but when Sahar called him as he was driving through Kingston he decided to just turn around and drive 4.5 hours back to Niagara Falls.

The Crown alleges it was both Hamed and Shafia, going to scope out the site.

On June 29, the family left Niagara Falls for Montreal at 8 p.m. The accused wanted to make sure they passed through Kingston in the middle of the night, the Crown alleges.

When they got to Kingston they decided to stop for the night, the family says. They checked into a motel around 2 a.m., with Hamed intending to stop only briefly before driving through the night back to Montreal to conduct some business, they say.

No explanation has been given for why Hamed and Shafia told the motel manager they would need rooms for six people, when they were a family of 10.

Soon after checking in, Zainab came to her parents' motel room to borrow the car keys so she could get clothing from the car, the family says, and that was the last they saw of her. Though she had no driver's licence she was eager to drive, the family says, so she must have taken the car for a spin, taken the other three with her, and driven into the canal.

The exact spot where the car plunged is so tight even the defence has referred to it as "threading the needle."

The story about Zainab and the car keys is what Shafia, Yahya and Hamed all told police when they were interviewed the next morning, after reporting the girls and Rona missing, and being told the car had been found in the canal. All three also told that story in their interrogations when they were arrested.

But four months later Hamed told a different story.

Moosa Hadi, a local university student, offered to be a translator for the Shafia parents and their lawyers since he spoke both English and Dari. Shafia then hired Hadi on the side as a private investigator of sorts, and Hadi developed a fervent belief in the family's innocence. However, he was called as a Crown witness. Hadi received the same disclosure of police evidence as the lawyers and the Crown alleges Hamed fabricated the story to fit that evidence.

Hadi made an audio recording of a meeting in jail with Hamed in November 2009 in which they go over the new story — a day earlier he finally got Hamed to reveal the truth, Hadi testified.

Hamed said he had seen his sisters and Rona leave from the motel in the car and he was concerned for their safety so he followed in the Lexus SUV. They ended up at the locks, where he rear-ended them accidentally and urged them to turn around, he said. As he was picking up some pieces of broken headlight, he heard a splash, he said. The car had plunged into the water.

So, he said, he sounded the horn of the Lexus once as a call for help, then took a rope from the trunk and dangled it in the water, dropping some pieces of headlight where they were later found. Seeing no signs of life, he said he drove straight home to Montreal, calling police only to report an accident he admitted he staged to mask damage to the Lexus, never mentioning his dead family members.

But the Crown alleges the three sisters and Rona never made it to the motel that night. Shafia and Hamed checked into the motel, dropped their surviving children off there, then drove back to Kingston Mills locks, where Yahya was waiting in the Nissan with the four soon-to-be-deceased, the Crown alleges.

The Crown also alleges the four girls and women were likely dead before the car hit the water, though they called no evidence to prove how or where they think their deaths took place. But in his cross-examination of Yahya, Crown attorney Gerard Laarhuis suggested she was telling the truth in a statement she made in her interrogation when she spoke of someone "pressing" them into the water. Yahya said later she made that up.

The cause of death for all four was drowning, a pathologist testified, but he couldn't say if they drowned in that car or not. Bruising was found around the tops of the heads of Rona, Zainab and Geeti.

The alleged plan to put the Nissan into first gear and have it slip into the canal under its own power went awry when it got hung up on the edge of the wall with four bodies inside, the Crown says. So one of the three accused used the Lexus to push it in, explaining the damage found to both the back of the Nissan and the front of the Lexus, it's alleged.

The defence said a scenario of the girls and Rona being drowned one at a time, led like lambs to a slaughter, is not only not borne out by the evidence and not only completely implausible, but there was simply no time for all of that to happen.

Both the defence lawyers and the Crown have urged the jury to follow each methodical piece of evidence to its logical conclusion, but the differences between where the Crown alleges that leads and the defence's versions of events are vast.

The Crown has presented piles of evidence it says is damning, but the Shafias have countered nearly every point presented by prosecutors, saying there is either an innocuous explanation or that the evidence is just plain wrong.

The jury will have to consider it all.

When Shafia was caught on a wiretap saying if his daughters came back to life "100 times" he would "do the same again," was he speaking of killing his daughters or of giving them good advice?

Did Sahar tell teachers she was being emotionally and physically abused as a cry for help, or did she make it all up to get special treatment at school?

Did the family wait more than five hours to report the children and Rona missing because they knew they were already dead, or were they waiting for Hamed to return to act as an interpreter, not wanting to wake their other, English-speaking children?

Did Yahya lapse into a rare moment of truth when she told a police interrogator that the three of them were at the locks that night, or was that, as she says, all lies in the midst of a seven-hour interrogation?

Did Hamed make up his dangling rope story by tailoring the new version of events to police evidence, as presented to him by Moosa Hadi, or is it the truth, which he didn't reveal at first because he was scared?

Were the four not able to escape the open driver's window once the car plunged into the water because they were already dead, or because it was pitch black and the non-swimmers became disoriented without enough time to properly react?

The jury will decide.

Also on HuffPost

Shafia Trial Judge Gives Final Instructions To Jury-from-mt-205490
Shafia Trial Judge Gives Final Instructions To Jury-from-mt-199337