TORONTO – The evidence against a father, mother and son convicted of murdering the couple’s three daughters and another woman was so “overwhelming” that it could only have led to guilty verdicts, Crown lawyers argued Friday as they sought to block the trio’s attempts at new trials.
Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya and their son Hamed claim the trial judge made several errors that include allowing “highly prejudicial” expert evidence on so-called honour killings, and made improper instructions to the jury.
But those alleged errors – if they were to be accepted – were minor, the Crown suggested to the panel of three Ontario Court of Appeal judges.
“The evidence against the appellants in this case was overwhelming,” said Jocelyn Speyer.
“Given the nature of errors that have been alleged and their relative insignificance in the context of this very large trial, the verdict would necessarily have been the same.”
The Shafia trial captivated the country and made international headlines.
The family was originally from Afghanistan and eventually immigrated to Canada, settling in Montreal.
In June 2009, the bodies of Shafia and Yahya’s daughters – Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13 – and Shafia’s first wife in a polygamous marriage, 52-year-old Rona Amir Mohammad, were found in a car at the bottom of the Rideau Canal in Kingston, Ont.
Shafia, Yahya and Hamed argued the deaths were the result of a tragic accident.
Crown prosecutors contended the murders were committed after the girls “shamed” the family by dating and acting out, and Amir Mohammad was simply disposed of.
The most important evidence in the case, Speyer argued, lay at the scene, where the car carrying the dead females was found.
The Shafia trial heard that the car, a Nissan Sentra, could not have entered the canal on its own and must have been pushed.
Speyer recalled that the Nissan and Shafia’s other car, a Lexis, were both damaged and debris at the scene supported a suggestion that one pushed the other into the canal. She also noted that the Nissan’s seats were all fully reclined and the ignition was off.
“The evidence at the scene was completely inconsistent with the accident theory,” she said.
There was also significant evidence of planning and deliberation, Speyer said, pointing to evidence about Internet searches on the family laptop about “where to commit a murder.” The trial also heard from teachers, child protection workers and police about reports from Shafia’s daughters that they were afraid of their father and brother and wanted to leave the family home, she noted.
Also significant was evidence on motive – that the deaths were so-called honour killings, a concept introduced through the words of the family patriarch himself, Speyer noted.
Speyer cited several wiretapped conversations played at Shafia’s trial where he was heard talking about the importance of his honour, and how it had been threatened by his westernized daughters.
In particular she recalled how Shafia cursed his daughters as “treacherous” and “whores” and was heard saying “may the devil (defecate) on their graves.”
“An abundance of evidence for motive in this case comes from the mouth of Mohammad Shafia himself,” Speyer said.
To help the jury at Shafia’s trial assess his conversations, the Crown called an expert witness to explain the concept of honour killings, Speyer said.
“This is not cultural profiling,” Speyer said. “This was equipping the jury to understand an issue in the trial.”
Speyer noted that the expert witness was careful to note at the original trial that honour killings are rare events, and also made sure there was no generalizations about citizens of Afghanistan or the Middle East in her testimony.
“She is not stigmatizing or seeking to generalize or profile an entire nation,” Speyer said. “She didn’t offer any opinion that this case was a case of honour killing.”
But lawyers for Shafia, Yahya and Hamed argued that the expert should not have been allowed to tell the jury how honour killings are typically carried out, nor should she have been allowed to read out denunciations on honour killings.
They argued the expert’s evidence encouraged prejudice, invited the jury to extrapolate from the facts of other unrelated murders, and encouraged a more generalized “cultural stereotyping.”
The judges reserved their decision on the matter.