A Montreal father, mother and son convicted nearly four years ago of murdering four other family members in an honour killing argue, in an appeal to Ontario’s top court, that they were victims of “cultural stereotyping” and “overwhelmingly prejudicial evidence” that should not have been admitted at their murder trial. In a 110-page document filed with the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Mohammad Shafia, 62 (inset), his wife Tooba, 45, and their son Hamed, 24, claim they’re entitled to a new trial. The document is a concise outline of the evidence and legal argument that lawyers for the three will present at a hearing scheduled for Dec. 14.
The trio, who were tried together, complains that the trial judge, Justice Robert Maranger, made numerous errors of “misdirection and non-direction” that may have permitted jurors to make improper conclusions.
The three were each convicted in January 2012 of four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Shafia sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, Geeti, 13, and Rona Amir, 50, Shafia’s first wife in the polygamous 10-member Afghan family that came to Canada in 2007 and settled in Montreal. The three were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. They have been behind bars since the convictions.
The case attracted international attention and was among events that sparked the Conservative government’s crackdown on what it calls “barbaric cultural practices.”
The victims were found dead in June 2009 inside a Nissan Sentra that belonged to Mohammad Shafia and was submerged at the bottom of a three-metre deep canal in Kingston, in eastern Ontario.
The sensational three-month long trial heard that Shafia was enraged because he felt his teenage daughters had violated cultural rules requiring sexual modesty, they were disobedient and the two eldest girls had boyfriends. Rona wanted a divorce and supported the girls in their pursuit of western lifestyles. Rona wrote in a diary entered as evidence that she and Tooba clashed frequently; she was abused, humiliated and isolated.
Jurors were told that Shafia concocted a plan to murder the four in a bid to restore his tarnished honour, in an ancient cultural practice that places family honour above human life. This honour is rooted in the modesty and subservience of the female family members to the patriarch. Several witnesses testified during the trial that Shafia spoke openly, before the four died, of wanting to kill Zainab. Prosecutors told jurors that Shafia enlisted the help of his eldest son and second wife in the elaborate but flawed plot to conceal the killings as a car crash.
Fearing jurors wouldn’t be able to fathom that a father would conspire to murder nearly half his family; prosecutors recruited an expert on honour killing. Despite defence objections, University of Toronto professor Shahzrad Mojab was permitted to testify about the origins of the practice but she wasn’t permitted to offer an opinion about whether the deaths of the four Shafia family members were honour killings.
The lengthy document filed with the appeal court includes a pointed, 13-page attack on Mojab’s testimony.
“Dr. Mojab’s evidence was overwhelmingly prejudicial and should not have been admitted,” states the document. “Her evidence invited the jury to improperly find that the Appellants had a disposition to commit family homicide as a result of their cultural background and to reject their claim that they held a different set of cultural beliefs.”
The manner in which Mojab’s evidence was presented “created enormous prejudice” and invited jurors to decide contested factual issues by relying on “cultural stereotyping,” according to the document.
“By reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes of violent and primitive Muslims, it created the risk that the jury’s verdict would be tainted by cultural prejudice,” the document states. It was prepared jointly by three lawyers representing the convicted family members and argues that while some of Mojab’s evidence may have been admissible, the judge failed to “limit its scope and its potential for prejudice.”
The Toronto lawyers, Michael Dineen representing Shafia, Frank Addario for Tooba and Scott Hutchison for Hamed, declined to comment on the appeal.
Shafia and Tooba both testified at the trial and rejected claims that they were abusive, conspired to kill their family members or that they subscribed to the notion of family honour above all. Tooba repudiated parts of a statement she made to a police interrogator after her arrest, including the admission that she was at the canal when the car went into the water on June 30, 2009. During Tooba’s trial testimony, she said parts of her police statement “were all lies” designed to convince the interrogator to leave her alone and to protect her son Hamed from torture she feared he’d face from police.
Hamed did not testify so prosecutors were not able to cross-examine him on two starkly different accounts he gave of the night his family members died.
During hours of police interviews, Hamed said he had no idea how the four ended up dead. In a conversation with a man who was paid by Shafia to investigate after the three were arrested, Hamed said Zainab took the family’s Nissan Sentra for a late night joyride – with her sisters and Rona as passengers – after the family stopped in Kingston on the way home to Montreal from a vacation in Niagara Falls.
Hamed said he drove another Shafia family vehicle and followed the four. Near the canal, he claimed that he rear ended the Sentra in a small fender bender and then stood by after they accidentally drove into the canal and drowned. He didn’t call 9-1-1 or jump in the water and claimed that he didn’t tell his parents what happened because he was afraid his father would be angry with him.
Though never proved conclusively, prosecutors theorized that the killers incapacitated the victims, perhaps by drowning them elsewhere, placed the bodies inside the Sentra and pushed it over a stone ledge into the canal with the other family vehicle. Forensic tests concluded all of the victims drowned but the time and place they died could not be established.
(the story above was first published by the Montreal Gazette)
» Want the full story of the Shafia family killings, including many details that did not emerge during the trial? You really should read my book on the case, Without Honour.
» For all of my coverage of the case online and in print, visit the Without Honour page