Jury members whose verdict labelled a government-sponsored refugee a serial killer were overwhelmed by complex evidence, a defence lawyer told a British Columbia Appeal Court Monday as he sought to overturn Charles Kembo’s convictions.
Lawyer Tom Arbogast said drawing conclusions from the eight-month trial, which featured evidence from 154 witnesses and copious financial records, became a confusing exercise for the judge and jury.
“There were so many exhibits in this case and the various ways they came in was so confusing,” Arbogast told a panel of three judges.
“It was bewildering, to be frank. I think it was bewildering to the trial judge many times and bewildering to defence counsel.”
Kembo was convicted in June, 2010, of four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of four people he knew intimately: his wife, business partner, girlfriend and step-daughter. They were killed separately between December, 2002, and July, 2005, although the body of his wife was never found.
He was handed an automatic sentence of life in prison with no parole for 25 years, which his lawyers are now appealing at a three-day hearing in Vancouver.
The bodies did not stack up in the order they were investigated or presented to the jury during the trial, Arbogast said.
Kembo’s wife, Margaret, went missing first, in January, 2003. Kembo told people he assumed she had entered a Buddhist monastery in Hong Kong.
Ardon Samuel, his 38-year-old business partner who Kembo said was like a brother, was found strangled and castrated in a Vancouver park in November, 2003.
One year later, in October, 2004, the body of Kembo’s girlfriend, 55-year-old Sui Yin Ma, was discovered stuffed in a hockey bag in a slough in Richmond, B.C. An autopsy found her death consistent with drowning or suffocation.
Kembo was arrested in July, 2005, days after the nearly naked body of his 20-year-old step-daughter, Rita Yeung, surfaced. Her body had been wrapped in garbage bags and dumped in Richmond.
During the trial, which ran from October, 2009 to June, 2010, the Crown advanced the theory that Kembo had been motivated by financial gain, killing the people who trusted him most and appropriating their identities.
Arbogast said Monday that there were instances during the trial when evidence from the different murders was fused together, when instead each killing should have been examined individually.
He gave the example of Margaret Kembo’s disappearance, which eventually was pronounced a death, and said a finding of murder in her case did not stand on its own. There was plenty of evidence that Kembo doctored documents around insurance and vehicle ownership, Arbogast said, but that was the extent of evidence supporting criminal activity.
“The fraud was widespread and I think it would be fair to say Mr. Kembo went after everything that he could try to get in terms of getting money,” he told the court. “But then again, that’s consistent with what the defence was saying. This guy’s a fraud artist, short and narrow, but not a murderer.”
Kembo arrived at Toronto’s international airport in September, 1989, from the African country of Malawi, at the time using the name Charlos Mathews Gwazah. Documents show the man made refugee claims under three different names over a three-year period.
At the time of his sentencing, B.C. Supreme Court Judge Sunni Stromberg-Stein denounced the man as “very dangerous,” saying the public deserved protection from him.