A Montreal couple and their son were convicted Sunday of first-degree murder in the deaths of four family members in a case the judge called "despicable," "heinous" and stemming from "a completely twisted concept of honour."
Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya and their son Hamed, who had pleaded not guilty, were each handed an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. They were accused of killing Hamed's three sisters and his father's childless first wife in a polygamous marriage.
The bodies of Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13, along with Rona Mohammad Amir, 50, were found in the family’s Nissan, submerged in a lock on the Rideau Canal on June 30, 2009.
"It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime," Justice Robert Maranger said.
"The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour … that has absolutely no place in any civilized society."
'We didn't commit the murder'
When Maranger asked whether they wanted to say anything, each declared their innocence.
"We didn't commit the murder and this is unjust," Mohammad Shafia said through a translator. "Your honourable justice, this is not just. I am not a murderer and I am a mother," Yahya said.
Hamed Shafia said in English: "Sir, I did not drown my sisters anywhere."
One female juror started crying after the verdict was read. Hamed grabbed a hold of the prisoners' box for support, his parents rubbing his back as each juror affirmed the verdict.
"This is a good day for Canadian justice," the chief Crown prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis said outside the courthouse, adding the four women were "murdered by their family in the most troubling of circumstances."
"This verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and core principles in a free, democratic society that all Canadians enjoy and even visitors to Canada enjoy," he said.
In a statement following the verdict, federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson called honour killings a practice that is "barbaric and unacceptable in Canada."
"This government is committed to protecting women and other vulnerable persons from all forms of violence and to hold perpetrators accountable for their acts."
Patrick McCann, Hamed’s lawyer, told The Canadian Press his client will appeal and his parents likely will as well.
The verdict came after about 15 hours of deliberations, less than 48 hours after the jury was charged by Maranger.
Moosa Hadi, the private investigator hired by the Shafia family to find "the truth," was removed by police after shouting at the prosecutor that the decision was an "injustice."
During the nearly three-month trial, the Crown maintained the family road trip was part of a plot to kill the four because they had tainted the family’s honour. The Crown alleged the family's patriarch was upset that his two eldest daughters wanted boyfriends, betraying his traditional Afghan values.
The Shafias moved to Canada in 2007. They fled their native Afghanistan more than 15 years earlier and had lived in Dubai and Australia before moving the family to Montreal and applied for citizenship.
At the time of the deaths, they were all permanent residents, except for Amir who had only a visitor's visa. They told authorities, and initially maintained after the deaths, that Amir was Mohammad Shafia’s cousin.
Mohammad Shafia, by all accounts a prosperous business man, owned commercial property in the Montreal area and ran a business buying used cars in North America and shipping them overseas.
Rona Amir was Shafia’s first wife. The couple wed in an arranged marriage in Kabul before civil war broke out in their homeland. Amir wasn’t able to conceive and encouraged Shafia to take another wife, which he did in 1989, marrying Tooba Yahya in another arranged marriage.
Yahya and Shafia had seven children, which Rona helped to raise. Court heard Yahya gave daughter Sahar to her co-wife to raise as her own.
However, the family situation deteriorated for Amir over time. Her diary details her trials and tribulations in the family and states she was like a servant to the preferred wife, Yahya. She describes a lonely life in Canada and that she would "wander in parks and cry." Court also heard testimony about her unsuccessful request for a divorce. According to the diary, Yahya likened her to a dead weight.
Eldest daughters had secret boyfriends
Zainab and Sahar, the two eldest daughters, also had trouble assimilating into life in Montreal within the strict boundaries of the household rules, which included a prohibition on relationships with boys. Both had secret boyfriends, wore fashionable clothes and, according to evidence heard in court, resisted pressure from their parents and eldest brother to wear the hijab.
They both reported incidents or threats of violence from their father and brother to authorities.
Geeti was described by the Crown as a rebel. While there’s no evidence to show she was hiding any boyfriends, she also resisted her family’s rules and had been caught shoplifting and expelled from class for wearing a shirt deemed too revealing.
Motive for murder
According to the Crown’s case, the murder plot was sparked when Zainab ran away to a Montreal women’s shelter in April 2009. This, the Crown alleged, was the ultimate act of betrayal. She had made the family’s problems public and she did it so she could ultimately marry an unapproved man, the boyfriend she had hidden from her parents and brother.
She was eventually coaxed back home by Yahya with the promise that the wedding could go forward.
Court heard evidence that Mohammad Shafia had called a relative of Yahya’s and proposed a plot to take Zainab to Sweden, have a picnic by the water and then drown her. Another relative testified Shafia had told him he would have killed his daughter if he had been at the marriage to her boyfriend, which was annulled the next day.
The murder plot came to include Sahar, according to the Crown, when photos of her with boys and dressed in revealing clothes were discovered and a younger sibling spotted her at a restaurant with her boyfriend and reported it back to the parents and Hamed.
The photos, which the defence claimed were found after the deaths, were recovered by police in a suitcase in Hamed’s room. They were in a pocket that also contained his used boarding passes from a trip to Dubai to meet his father earlier in June.
Geeti and Amir were also killed because they had also been involved in acts of betrayal and couldn’t be counted on to tell the same story after the deaths, according to the Crown’s case.
While the jury had a significant amount of evidence to consider, more than 160 exhibits and testimony from nearly 60 witnesses, most of that evidence was circumstantial.
It included computer searches made on the Shafia laptop, most often used by Hamed, for things including: "Where to commit a murder;" "Can a prisoner have control over his real estate;" and other various searches for bodies of water.
It also included seemingly damning wiretaps of the accused discussing the state of the Kingston locks at night, making disparaging remarks about the women and, in Mohammad Shafia’s case, remarks about the value of family honour.
The jury saw a series of police interviews with the accused where they at first all told the same story about the incident; Yahya later claimed she had been there and fainted when the car went into the water. She later recanted that story.
They heard from collision experts who talked about damage on the Nissan that was consistent with coming into contact with the family’s Lexus SUV.
They heard from the motel manager in Kingston who recalled Hamed and Shafia checking in that night and telling him there would only be six guests in two rooms. He recalled them leaving after check-in and seeing only one vehicle.
There was evidence given from teachers and social workers who talked about the girls’ complaints about abuse at home. Cultural experts were brought in to explain the concept of honour killings and to tell the jury why some of the vulgar expressions on the wiretaps weren’t that offensive in the Shafia’s native Dari.
They heard arguments from the defence about a timeline of the night, based largely on cellphone records, which the lawyers said proved the accused wouldn’t have enough time to drown the women after reaching Kingston just before 2 a.m. and for Hamed to reach Montreal, where his phone was recorded at 6:48 a.m. on June 30.
What they didn’t hear was exactly how the women died. They drowned, that’s certain according to the forensic pathologist who signed off on their post mortem exams.
However, the Crown could not conclusively tell the jury where they drowned or why they sat seemingly calm in the Nissan with the window open and in relatively shallow water.
Bruising on their heads
The Crown’s theory was that the women were drowned elsewhere or incapacitated and then put in the car. That was supported by evidence of fresh bruising on the heads of three out of the four women
The car was in first gear when it was pulled from the water with the ignition off. The headlights were also off, the girls weren’t wearing seatbelts and the seats were reclined at an awkward angle.
This, the prosecution told the jury, supported the theory that they were placed in the car which was then pushed into the locks by the family’s SUV. Pieces of the SUV's headlights were found at the scene.
However, the defence argued, without conclusive proof of how the car went into the water, no one would know exactly what happened that night and it might well have been an accident.
Hamed Shafia gave another version of the events to a private investigator hired by his father after the arrests. He said he followed the girls and rear ended the car by accident when they stopped short at the lock.
Car plunged into water
Do you agree with the Shafia verdict? Take our poll.
While he was picking up pieces of the broken headlight, the car plunged in the water as the driver was trying to turn around. He rushed over, called their names, dangled a rope in the water, but when no one responded he took off to Montreal and didn’t report the incident because he said he feared his father’s anger.
He then staged an accident in Montreal to cover the damage to the SUV.
Hamed’s lawyer told the court in his closing arguments his client was guilty of being "stupid" but not murder.
The jury of seven women and five men listened to more than 40 days of proceedings that included delays for a health emergency with Mohammad Shafia, a power outage caused by an ice storm and an evacuation caused by a security threat at the courthouse.