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Mohammad Shafia, Tooba Mohammad Yahya and their son Hamed arrive at the Frontenac County Court House for the final phase of their trial. (STRINGER/Lars Hagberg/REUTERS)
Mohammad Shafia, Tooba Mohammad Yahya and their son Hamed arrive at the Frontenac County Court House for the final phase of their trial. (STRINGER/Lars Hagberg/REUTERS)

Shafia defendants didn't have time to kill, jury told Add to ...

There was far too little time, the defence lawyers said. The location made no sense. Nor has it been explained how the defendants managed to drag four healthy people out of a parked car and subdue and drown them, one at a time.

But the overarching puzzle in the trial of three Afghan-Canadian immigrants charged with murdering four relatives, the jury heard Tuesday as two defence lawyers presented closing arguments, is why murder would have been committed at all.

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What really occurred on that June night, the jurors were told, was a tragic accident.

The core theory of the prosecution, accounting for the enormous interest the trial has generated, is that the four dead women – three teenage sisters and their father's first wife – were victims of “honour killings,” whose purpose was to restore the sullied reputation of a dysfunctional family ruled by an irascible, tradition-minded tyrant.

But in their summations, defence counsel Peter Kemp and David Crowe said there was no proof to support that thesis, quite the contrary. The father and mother accused of wiping out nearly half their family members, the lawyers said, are decent, caring people who spent their lives doing all they could for their children.

“There are too many unanswered questions in this investigation,” Mr. Crowe concluded as he wrapped up his remarks on behalf of Tooba Mohammad Yahya, the mother of the dead girls. “And the lack of motive on her part should certainly raise reasonable doubt [about her guilt]”

The submissions came as the three-month trial of Ms. Yahya, 42, her husband Mohammad Shafia, 59, and their eldest son Hamed, 21, neared its end. Hamed Shafia's lawyer, Patrick McCann, will address the jury Wednesday, the prosecution's closing arguments will immediately follow and, after the judge's charge to the jurors, their deliberations are expected to begin Friday.

Both Mr. Kemp and Mr. Crowe focused heavily on the timeline sketched out by the prosecution, piecing together various moments when the defendants' whereabouts can be verified via cellphone records and witness statements.

Mr. Kemp drew on the trial evidence of pathologist Christopher Milroy, who testified in November that he found fresh bruising on the heads of three of the four victims, and that they drowned, but he couldn't tell when or where. If they were murdered, Dr. Milroy said, it would probably have taken 10 minutes per victim.

Mr. Kemp argued Tuesday that that created an impossible scenario. “There was simply no time for a murder as opposed to an accident,” he told the jury. For the prosecution theory to stand up, he said, its timeline of the killings would have to be compressed by roughly an hour

And if mass murder had indeed been planned, he said, there would have been ample opportunity to do the deed somewhere else – certainly not when three potentially incriminating witnesses were close at hand, in the form of three Shafia children, staying at a nearby motel.

Mr. Kemp addressed the jury first, speaking for a little under two hours as he outlined the alleged holes in the prosecution's case.

Both lawyers stressed their view that friction within the Shafia family in the runup to the June, 2009 deaths had been overstated. Expert trial testimony about honour killings, moreover, just emphasized how different Mr. Shafia and his family are from the type of cases the jury was told about, Mr. Kemp contended – cosmopolitan, financially secure, liberal, widely travelled.

Indeed, he said, said, his client moved the family to Canada precisely because of the education opportunities it would provide. “All [Mr. Shafia’s]efforts were directed toward the well-being of his children,” he said, as cheerful photos of the victims were flashed on the courtroom monitor. The numerous incriminating police wiretaps that underpin the prosecution case, he added, should therefore not be taken at face value.

In sum, the concept of honour killing “has no application to the case before you, it should be disregarded in its totality,” Mr. Crowe told the jury.

‪The defendants are each charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the drowning deaths of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, whose bodies were found in a submerged car at a Rideau Canal lock in June, 2009. The fourth person in the vehicle was Mr. Shafia's long-time first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, who had entered Canada illegally, posing as his cousin.

As such, she represented a possible threat to the family’s legal status as investor immigrants. As well, prosecution witnesses have painted a picture of a tormented life in which she was ostracized and treated as a servant – a key exhibit is a diary she kept, describing her unhappiness.

That prosecution testimony is exaggerated and in part even false, the jury was told Tuesday.

‪But the chief motive for committing murder, it’s alleged, was a desire to “cleanse” the Shafia family name and reputation, supposedly marred by the disobedient, independent-minded conduct of the teens, particularly the dating habits of the eldest two. So why murder Geeti, who was just 13 and whose biggest transgression was chronic school absenteeism, the jury was asked.

The Shafias came to Quebec in 2007 and comprised 10 members: Mr. Shafia, his two wives and his seven children – five sisters and two brothers, all born to Ms. Yahya.

All 10 were returning to their Montreal home from a short holiday in Niagara Falls, travelling in two vehicles, a Nissan Sentra and a Lexus SUV. As the family stayed at a Kingston motel overnight, the four victims disappeared.

The next day, the defendants walked into the Kingston police station to say the four had taken the Nissan from the motel for an unauthorized late-night spin, with Zainab at the wheel, in search of a phone card.

The prosecution, however, contends the four women never made it to the motel that night, but rather were drowned at the Kingston Mills lock, which connects the Rideau Canal to the Cataraqui River and Lake Ontario.

Mr. Shafia and his son booked into the motel, left the three other children there (aged 16, 15 and 8) and then, somewhere around 2 a.m., drove to the lock where Ms. Yahya waited in the Nissan with the four sleepy victims and drowned them, the prosecution says.

The bodies were allegedly placed in the Nissan, which was clumsily shoved into the lock by the Lexus when it became hung up on a concrete step at the edge of the lock.

And one of the major problems for the defence is to explain why, on the day she was arrested, Ms. Yahya told a Farsi-speaking RCMP officer during a lengthy interrogation that the three accused had, indeed, been at the lock when the Nissan went in – she heard the splash as she was walking and chatting with Hamed, she said. But she had no idea what happened next, she said, because she then fainted, to awake in the motel.

A few hours later, however, Ms Yahya retracted that version of events, and reverted to the original story of the borrowed car.

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