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‘Honour killings’ trial now in hands of jury

After a long day of a judge's instructions, the fate of three Afghan-Canadian immigrants charged with committing multiple "honour killings" is in the hands of the jurors.

The seven-woman, five-man jury retired late Friday afternoon after Mr. Justice Robert Maranger of Superior Court delivered his charge, spelling out the core issue the panel must determine: "This was either an accident or an intentional act that was made to look like an accident."

He told the jurors they have three options for any or all of the accused: They can be convicted of first-degree murder, which broadly means a killing that was planned ahead of time; of second-degree murder, which usually means it was deliberate but not planned; or they can be acquitted.

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Once again, this time in a cold rain, spectators began lining up well before 7 a.m. for a spot in the big courtroom.

They included two of the surviving children of the two oldest defendants, businessman Mohammad Shafia, 59, and his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 42. As the jury filed in, the teenagers waved and smiled at their parents.

Also in court was a member of the Afghan diplomatic mission in Ottawa, who took extensive notes as the proceedings got under way.

On trial, each charged with four counts of first-degree murder, are Mr. Shafia, Ms. Yahya, and their eldest son, Hamed, 21. They stand accused of drowning sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, whose bodies were found in a submerged car at a Rideau Canal lock, just east of Kingston in June, 2009.

The fourth person in the vehicle was Mr. Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, who had entered Canada illegally, posing as his cousin, but who in fact was part of a polygamous marriage and who by every indication wanted to escape from it.

What links the four, the prosecution contends, is their "desperate" shared desire to break away from the constraints of the Shafia household.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to what the prosecution contends was a carefully planned but clumsily executed quadruple murder committed chiefly to "purify" the family name of disgrace created by the victims' rebellious conduct, particularly Zainab's and Sahar's interest in boys and dating.

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Judge Maranger began his 240-page address by explaining basic legal principles of which the jurors must be mindful: The presumption of innocence; the fact that the burden of proof rests with the prosecution; an explanation of what "reasonable doubt" means; and the need to apply "common sense" in weighing the value of evidence, which in this instance, he said, encompasses "a great deal of circumstantial evidence."

As well, he explained that while "hearsay" (second-hand) evidence is usually excluded at a trial because it cannot be tested in court, in this case, hearsay in the shape of statements or information emanating from the four dead victims is legitimate.

The judge then reviewed the evidence itself, encompassing 58 witnesses and 162 exhibits, and delivered a brief chronological synopsis of what those witnesses said, starting with the police officers and Parks Canada who were the first people at what the prosecution contends was a crime scene.

And he dwelt extensively on the testimony of a police reconstruction expert who examined the two vehicles at the centre of the investigation.

The Shafia family had been returning to their Montreal home from a short holiday in Niagara Falls, travelling in two cars, and were staying at a Kingston motel when the four victims mysteriously vanished.

The defence says the four perished accidentally, after taking one of the cars for an unauthorized late-night drive.

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The Crown says they were murdered, and that under the cover of darkness, one of the cars was used to push the other one into the Kingston Mills lock where the bodies were found. Judge Maranger summarized the findings of the reconstruction expert, and his conclusion that the car in the lock – a Nissan Sentra – was probably shoved in by the other vehicle, a Lexus SUV.

Among the other issues he said the jury must weigh: Motive (which the prosecution need not prove); the credibility of the numerous Montreal witnesses who gave evidence about the troubled Shafia household; and the concept of honour killings.

He then outlined the broad positions of the prosecution and the defence.

The jury will remain sequestered in a Kingston hotel until it delivers its verdict.

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About the Author

At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

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