A jury in Windsor, Ont., has reached a decision in the landmark trial of Nathaniel Veltman, accused of deliberately running over a Muslim family in London, in what the Crown had argued was an act of terrorism.
After less than six hours of deliberation, jurors returned to a packed courtroom Thursday afternoon to deliver their verdict: guilty on four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
Family and friends of the victims were in tears, hugging each other even before the verdict was read. As it was read out, gasps, quiet sobbing and sniffling could be heard in the courtroom, with some members of the jury even wiping away tears.
Salman Afzaal, 46; his 44-year-old wife, Madiha Salman; their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna; and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, were killed in the attack, while the couple’s nine-year-old son was seriously hurt but survived.
Outside of the courthouse, family representative Tabinda Bukhari, Madiha’s mother; Omar Khamissa, the COO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims; and London Muslim Mosque Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal shared that while the verdict does not bring back the lives lost, it serves as a symbolic recognition of the seriousness of the crime.
“The enduring grief, trauma and the irreplaceable void left by the loss of multiple generations has pierced us profoundly. The victims who were valuable contributors to Canadian society through their hard work and education, were taken away abruptly, leaving a nine year old orphaned,” said Bukhari.
“This trial and verdict are a reminder that there is still much work to be done to address hatred in all forms that lives in our communities.”
Imam Twakkal added that the fear of community members is “real.”
“We have many of our community members who are visibly Muslim, and they continue to express fears of walking down the streets. But today is an important step in terms of providing a deterrent for anyone who feels or thinks that this can happen without any consequence.”
Khamissa’s comments raised further concerns about a rise in Islamophobia across Canada, referencing a fatal stabbing outside of a Toronto-area mosque in 2020 and an attempted attack at a mosque in Peel in 2022 as well as numerous anecdotal accounts from Muslims he has talked to “who have been beaten, stabbed and brutalized because of Islamophobia.”
He ended his statement by saying that the names of the members of the Afzaal family will be “our strength, our courage” and referenced a mural at the London, Ont., high school where Yumna attended inspired by her own artwork.
“The mural of Yumna Afzaal will never stop reminding us to never stop shooting for the stars. In a time of darkness, I will never stop aiming for the light, for the stars in the twilight.”
The defence and Crown agreed that Veltman, 22, drove his truck into the Afzaal family on June 6, 2021 – killing four members of the family and orphaning a fifth – automatically meeting the legal threshold for manslaughter.
However, the defence tried to argue that there was a lack of evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the Crown’s argument that Veltman intended for them to die and that he had been planning to kill as well as the Crown’s claim that the deaths occurred during the commission of a terrorist act, which automatically meets the threshold for first-degree murder regardless of intent to kill.
The jury’s decision does not reveal which path jurors took to reach their conclusions, only that they all agree with a finding of guilt on the charges of first-degree murder and attempted murder.
In her instructions on Wednesday, Justice Renee Pomerance explained that there were two paths to a finding of guilt on the first-degree murder charges.
First, that jurors found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the accused committed an unlawful act, that act resulted in deaths, the accused intended to kill or to cause bodily harm he knew could result in death and that it was planned and deliberate.
The other possible pathway to a finding of guilt on first-degree murder charges in this case was by way of terrorism. Typically, Pomerance said, the Crown does not have to prove why someone did what they did, but terrorist activity does require proof of motive.
To find Veltman guilty of first-degree murder by way of terrorist activity, there is no requirement for the Crown to prove that the murders were planned and deliberate, only that the accused committed an act that caused death, that it was committed in whole or in part for religious or ideological purposes and that it was committed in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public or a segment of the public.
The question of terrorism now moves to the sentencing portion of the trial, as it is possible that the justice may make a decision on whether the murders constitute an act of terror as part of potential aggravating factors in the case.
Regardless, under the Criminal Code of Canada, a conviction of first-degree murder comes with an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for at least 25 years.
Whether terrorism is a factor would impact his case when it goes before a parole board, defence lawyer Peter Ketcheson said.
“All evidence that was heard, any findings of facts that are made – including in relation to terrorism – will make its way before the parole board. And certainly it will be one factor they consider in their analysis,” he explained outside of court.
“But that’s a decision for the parole board down the road.”
A statement released on behalf of the family thanked “every person involved in this process” from first responders to witnesses to the Crown attorneys, the jury and judge.
Crown attorney Sarah Shaikh also thanked those involved in the proceedings in a written statement read outside the courthouse, adding that the Crown hopes the verdict brings some measure of closure to the community.
“Hate and Islamophobia have no place in Canadian society. The jury’s verdict reflects the overwhelming evidence that led them to find Nathaniel Veltman guilty of the horrific crimes he committed on June 6, 2021.”
The Crown had said that Veltman spent three months planning his attack, that he used a truck specifically to send a message to potential sympathizers that they didn’t require guns to commit a terrorist act, and that his goal was to tell Muslims that they are not welcome here.
The defence argued that Veltman was a troubled man consumed by obsessive thoughts and that the recent ingestion of psilocybin combined with his mental health issues left him unable to resist the urge to step on the gas.
The case marks the first time Canada’s terrorism laws were being put before a jury in a first-degree murder trial.
Counsel and the justice will reconvene Dec. 1 and 2 to determine a sentencing date.