One clear summer evening, Montreal university student Emma Czornobaj stopped her car on a suburban highway to try to save some ducklings that had wandered onto the road. The seemingly humane act had tragic consequences.
A motorcycle driven by a man and his teenaged daughter plowed into her car from behind, killing the two. Now Ms. Czornobaj, who told police all she wanted to do was save the ducks, is accused of some of the country’s most serious crimes.
In a trial unfolding at the Montreal courthouse, Ms. Czornobaj, now 25, is answering to charges of dangerous driving and criminal negligence causing death. The latter carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
On Wednesday, the jury heard the words Ms. Czornobaj told Sûreté du Québec investigators the night of her arrest.
“I stopped my car because there were baby ducks on the road,” she said in the interrogation room. “I was worried that [the] babies would be killed.”
Instead, death came to André Roy, a 50-year-old mail carrier, and his 16-year-old daughter, Jessie, a passenger on his Harley-Davidson.
The trial heard that on a Sunday evening in June, 2010, Ms. Czornobaj stopped her Honda Civic in the left lane of a highway south of Montreal, where the speed limit is 100 kilometres an hour. She was seen walking on the narrow shoulder – it is no wider than two feet – between the left lane and a concrete highway divider, the driver’s door of her car open.
One witness testified she saw her gesturing at the ducks.
Conflicting evidence was heard about whether Ms. Czornobaj put on her hazard lights. One witness said she did not; Ms. Czornobaj told police she did.
One driver managed to swerve and avoid the stationary car, but there was no time for Mr. Roy. Pauline Volikakis – Mr. Roy’s wife and Jessie’s mother – was riding her motorcycle behind the two and saw them crash. She testified she saw her daughter fly over the immobilized car before landing on the pavement.
The case has visited tragedy on two families. Antonios Volikakis, Ms. Volikakis’s father, said the deaths have been devastating.
“It demolished our entire family,” he said in an interview outside the courtroom. He said he hoped others might learn from the case. “If you see a cat or a duck on the road, you don’t stop, and you might have to run it over.”
For her part, Ms. Czornobaj started to cry the night of her arrest when she heard of Mr. Roy’s death, two police officers testified.
Speed has been raised as an issue by Ms. Czornobaj’s defence lawyer, who questioned Pauline Volikakis on whether her husband had been driving over the speed limit. The widow said she believed the two motorcycles were going under 90 kilometres an hour.
The case rests on whether Ms. Czornobaj’s would-be gesture of kindness constituted reasonable behavior. In her address to jurors, prosecutor Annie-Claude Chassé asked: “Would a reasonable and prudent person in the same circumstances as the accused do the same? Would a reasonable and prudent person stop her car in the left-hand lane, on a busy highway, in order to save some ducks?”
Ms. Czornobaj and Ms. Volikakis were both seated in the courtroom on Wednesday, no more than eight feet apart, but avoiding eye contact. The trial continues Monday.