An Afghan-Canadian mother jointly charged with murdering four family members wept and buried her face in her hands Friday as a prosecutor directly accused her of helping kill them, and outlined the Crown thesis as to how the four died and how the plan went wrong.
“No sir, we are not murderers, don’t ever tell me such a thing,” an animated Tooba Mohammad Yahya replied. “I am a mother...don’t ever tell me that I killed my children.”
Ms. Yahya was in the witness box for a fifth day and will return Monday when prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis wraps up what has frequently been a gruelling cross-examination.
Ms. Yahya, 42, her husband Mohammad Shafia, 59, and their eldest son, Hamed, 21, are each charged with four counts of first-degree murder.
The trio stands accused of drowning three of the couple’s daughters, Zainab, Sahar and Geeti, aged 19, 17 and 13, together with Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, who lived with the rest of the 10-member family in Montreal as part of a clandestine polygamous marriage.
The four victims’ bodies were discovered June 30, 2009 in a Rideau Canal lock, east of Kingston, in a submerged Nissan Sentra as the group returned home from a short vacation in Niagara Falls, travelling in the Nissan and a Lexus SUV and stopping overnight at a Kingston motel.
The defendants say an accident took place when Zainab borrowed the Nissan to take the other three for a late-night ride.
Police, however, believe the four victims never made it to the motel that night, but rather were drowned at the locks and placed back inside the Nissan, which Ms. Yahya admits she drove for most of that night, and that the car was then shoved into the water by the Lexus.
The motive, it’s alleged, was to restore the Shafia family’s “honour,” supposedly sullied by their daughters’ rebellious conduct, particularly their interest in boys.
And as he addressed Ms. Yahya Friday, Mr Laarhuis for the first time provided the Crown’s explanation as to how the Nissan ended up in the water. The car had been purchased shortly before the Niagara Falls trip, he said, precisely because it was suitable for the defendants’ alleged plot.
“I’m putting to you that one of you drove the Nissan to that place with the bodies inside, drove it to the edge of the canal wall...
“Somebody positioned it... and somebody left the car running – this was part of the plan – rolled down the window, put the gear shift in neutral, aimed the wheels of the car...the seats reclined, the headlights off, the dome light off, the wipers off. They got out of the car, closed the door, reached through the open window, put the car from neutral into gear number 1, thinking that on its own power the Nissan would go into the water. What none of you expected – what was not part of the plan – was that the Nissan would get hung up (on a concrete step). Do you agree with that?”
“Never, no,” Ms. Yahya responded.
“When the Nissan got hung up there was an emergency,” Mr. Laarhuis continued.
“Because now you had bodies inside of a car, hung up on the edge of the canal and you and Hamed or you and Shafia were in the Lexus and the emergency required driving the Lexus, positioning it behind the Nissan. There wasn’t enough room so you had to do it at an angle, which is what caused the Nissan to rotate as it was pushed in...and that’s what caused the damage to the headlight of the Lexus and the taillight of the Nissan....do you agree with that?”
Ms. Yahya said she did not.
“No sir, we are not murderers,” she replied, her voice cracking as the jury seemed to gaze at her without sympathy. “We were a very sincere and collected family. This crime – we would never do such a crime.”
Mr. Laarhuis also offered the jury an explanation as to why on the morning the three accused supposedly awoke to find the four missing, they waited more than five hours before contacting police.
“You did nothing because there was nothing to be done. Fate was finished,” he said.
Ms. Yahya has admitted that much of what she told police after her arrest was untrue, insisting she told them what she thought they wanted to hear, and was frantic to divert suspicion away from her son Hamed, whom she feared would be subjected to some unspecified form of ‘water torture.’ Mr. Laarhuis was skeptical.
“You wanted to save Hamed from going under water. Why didn’t you protect your daughters from going under water?”
Ms. Yahya reiterated her denial of all wrongdoing.
The cross-examination was punctuated by numerous objections from defence lawyers David Crowe, Patrick McCann and Peter Kemp.
On the evening of her arrest, Ms. Yahya was interrogated by a Farsi-speaking RCMP inspector, and during the six-hour interview she told him, in remarks she retracted the next day, that she and her co-accused had indeed been at the Kingston Mills locks that night and that she heard the sound of a splash.
But Mr. Laarhuis put it to her that, in fact, her first account was true. And the proof, he suggested, was that it contained details that could only have been familiar to her if she had been there.
Her story kept changing, he said, “Because you were trapped. And when you were trapped you went to Plan C, which was to say you were confused.”
“No sir, that’s not correct,” the defendant replied, clearly under stress.
“I had to make up a story so he would leave me (alone.)”
The trial is expected to last at least another two weeks.