A short, dark movie is looping in Sally Dawe’s head.
It is two minutes and 45 seconds of black and white, silent horror.
It captures the final 165 seconds of the life of her 24-year-old son Tim Wojna, from the moment he encounters a trio of mouthy men on an Ottawa sidewalk, to the moment when one punch to the back of his neck kills him.
“It was your worst nightmare,” says Dawe.
The movie (watch it after the jump) was recorded by an outdoor video surveillance camera beginning at 2:53 a.m. on June 25, 2006.
A few hours after this movie was recorded, a police officer arrived at Dawe’s Kingston, Ontario home to tell her that her gentle, curious and kind child was dead. Mohammad Jihad Tabbara, a 21-year-old Ottawa man with no criminal record, had been arrested.
“I screamed,” she recalls. “I cried.
“I was quite hysterical, I think.”
Dawe, overcome with “sickness and sadness and disbelief,” wanted to die. With two other teenage children at home, it was not a realistic option.
Tim Wojna was a remarkable child with a big heart.
“He always had a different value system, even when he was growing up, he’d never ask for toys,” his mother recalls.
Asked what he’d want for Christmas, Tim would say he didn’t really need anything.
“As a parent, it was very frustrating because I wanted him to have some sort of drive and ambition,” Dawe says.
He was only interested in books and friends and hanging out at the coffee shop and talking to people, she says.
Wojna graduated from high school with good grades but then found himself uncertain about his future.
“He didn’t know what he wanted to do so he basically worked and then at that point he left home, he went out West, did odd jobs,” Dawe says.
He returned home, still undecided about the future. He got in trouble a few times, his mother says, because of his refusal to stay silent about unfairness or injustice he saw around him.
He moved to Ottawa two or three years before his death.
He spent part of his time living in a mission.
UPDATE: In 2011, Tabbara lost his appeal to the province’s top court, the Court of Appeal for Ontario
In the spring of 2006, with the help of a mission worker, he found an apartment and was working at contracting jobs.
It looked like he had found some stability.
He’d been keeping a journal too, filling it with positive exhortations.
He wrote about making a difference in the lives of others.
“It was frustrating because he didn’t have the perfect life and he didn’t have a great job and a girlfriend,” Dawe says. “I feel strongly that he was headed that way and it was going to happen, just in a matter of time.”
Dawe was told that her son and a friend planned to take care of the friend’s father, who had cancer.
“What kind of young men do things like that?” she wonders. “I don’t think it was a story, I really believe that.”
A mother’s anguish over her son’s death soon gave way to anger.
“I thought of killing [Tabbara],” she says, dropping her voice almost bashfully. “I thought, ‘OK, who do I know who could do this?’ and I was arranging all these scenarios in my head of how can I get this man off the earth.”
Tim’s (inset) death affected everyone.
Dawe’s 16-year-old daughter dropped out of high school, attempted suicide and fell into drug use.
Tim’s younger brother, then 18, was stoic at first, but eventually was overcome by anger and dropped out of college.
“He broke his hand twice punching a light standard.”
Dawe was off work for two months before returning to her hospital job. There were many trips to the bathroom to conceal raging emotions and tears, when she would overhear people talking about weddings and babies – moments of joy she will not share with her son.
“Every day was just a huge challenge,” she says.
At the same time, she struggled to find help for her floundering children. Her daughter was hospitalized for several weeks.
Eventually, they found psychologists and psychiatrists who have been able to help them find stability.
Both of her children are back at school.
“I would say at this point we’re pretty much as normal as we’ll ever be,” she says.
But the torment has not ended.
Last year, Tabbara was convicted (read decision below) of manslaughter and sentenced (read decision below) to two years less a day in jail.
He was released on bail, pending an appeal of both the conviction and the sentence (Tabbara later lost his appeal).
Since Wojna’s death four years ago, Tabbara (inset left) has served only a few days behind bars. He is free, under strict bail conditions, until his appeal is heard.
“It’s not right,” says Dawe, politely condemning a system she says is not fair.
“Tim’s life meant nothing,” she laments. “His death meant nothing.”
She cannot believe that her son’s killer remains free. She has a horrible feeling about the looming appeal.
“I have the gut feeling that this is what the [appeal judges] will say, ‘We’ve been through this for four years, it’s time to put it to bed,’ ” Dawe says.
Her anxiety flows, in part, from what she has heard in court.
Tabbara was portrayed as a promising young college student, a father with a young baby and someone known for his kindness.
His actions that early morning on Elgin Street in Ottawa were described as out of character.
A pre-sentence report concluded that his remorse is “bottomless and truly genuine” and there is an extremely low risk of re-offending.
Tabbara apologized in court, when he was offered the chance to speak.
“In the heat of the moment I reacted to words – which is something I never should have done,” he said. “If I could go back in time the outcome would be different.
“I truly believe I can be a voice for peace and speak out against violence. I truly am sorry.”
Dawe (inset right), who was in the courtroom, was not moved.
“You plead not guilty … then when you’re found guilty, OK, now you are guilty, now you have to pretend that you’re really sorry and that you won’t do it again and you’ll get off,” she says. “That’s what he did and I did not believe a word of it.”
She says Tabbara simply parroted what he was told to say, in a bid for a lenient sentence.
She wonders why he would appeal his conviction and his sentence, dragging out the ordeal for her family, if he is truly remorseful.
“I must confess that thought flickered through my mind when I had spent time in court making the sentencing argument and we heard about the tremendous remorse being expressed by the offender,” says Mark Holmes, the Ottawa Crown prosecutor who handled the sentencing portion of the case. “It seems to be at odds with how we generally recognize remorse which is through a guilty plea.”
Holmes had suggested a prison sentence of up to five years.
Tabbara’s lawyer says this isn’t a black and white situation.
“Just being involved in an altercation generally where someone dies is going to change your life,” says James Foord, who represented Tabbara at trial and also is handling the appeal.
He says it’s understandable that someone would have great remorse for being involved in an encounter where someone dies, regardless of whether they are criminally responsible.
That’s the key issue being contested.
Foord argued at trial that there may have been other physical encounters, not just his client’s punch, that caused Wojna’s death.
“It remains our argument that it was unreasonable to conclude that Mr. Tabbara was the exclusive cause,” he says.
Judge Jennifer Blishen ruled that there was no evidence to suggest otherwise.
“I cannot find on all the evidence before me any reasonably possible explanation for the sudden violent torsion of Tim Wojna’s head other than the blow inflicted by Mr. Tabbara,” Blishen ruled.
A pathologist testified that Wojna died because the sudden twisting of his head, caused by blunt force, caused a small artery to rupture.
He had no underlying medical problem.
Blishen rejected the defence suggestion of a conditional sentence, virtual house arrest. She imposed the jail time, followed by two years probation, including 240 hours of community service.
A manslaughter conviction does not carry any mandatory minimum penalty.
The prosecution relied on the surveillance video as a key piece of evidence to prove that Tabbara’s punch was the killer blow.
It shows that just before 3 a.m, Tim Wojna and his friend Dixie Duggan pass a group of three men on the sidewalk.
Wojna and Duggan had been drinking and were walking home.
Tabbara and two friends, Brian Herbert and Diar Hosseini, had ordered food in a nearby diner and were on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes. They too had been out drinking, though Tabbara was reportedly not intoxicated.
The encounter begins because one or more of the men in the Tabbara group taunts Wojna and Duggan with comments like “Keep walking,” or “Get out of here.”
Tabbara’s friends, who testified, said words were exchanged and they were not friendly. Tabbara did not testify in his own defence.
Hosseini testified that Tabbara told Wojna and Duggan to keep walking.
“The two friends of the accused who were out there with him were very intoxicated and so their evidence was not very illuminating,” prosecutor Meaghan Cunningham, the Crown lawyer who handled the trial, said in an interview.
The video, which does not have any sound, shows Wojna and Duggan stop on sidewalk, in response to the taunts.
Wojna, who was about six foot two inches tall, and who loved hats, was wearing a cowboy hat.
As the encounter begins, Wojna’s head is not visible. At first, Wojna has his hands in his pockets, even as the three men begin to make aggressive gestures.
For roughly two minutes, there is arguing, hand gestures and posturing. Wojna moves toward the trio several times, but he does not touch any of them.
Eventually, the cowboy hat is knocked from Wojna’s head.
Duggan testified that Herbert swatted the hat off Wojna’s head and also kicked the hat along the sidewalk.
Wojna retrieved the hat, put it back on and began to walk away, with his back to Tabbara.
The time stamp on the video shows that at 2:55:27, Tabbara lunged toward Wojna, his right arm cocked at the elbow and his fist clenched. The two figures disappear off the right side of the camera’s view.
Tabbara landed one punch near the right side of the back of Wojna’s neck.
“Something’s not right,’’ Wojna told his friend Dixie Duggan, as he staggered and collapsed.
Eighteen seconds after the punch, Wojna’s upper torso and face appear in the lower right corner of the frame, as he falls to the sidewalk, face up, looking toward the camera.
Sally Dawe still wakes from vivid, frightening nightmares in which she sees her dying son, his final moments frozen on a screen.
“There isn’t a moment of any day that I don’t think about him,” she says.
Tabbara’s appeal could be heard this fall.
(This story also appears today in the Kingston Whig-Standard)
(Above, images from the surveillance video: From left, Tabbara cocks his arm, Tabbara lunges forward to punch Wojna, Wojna sprawled on the sidewalk on his back)
Judge’s decision convicting Tabbara of manslaughter:
Judge’s decision to sentence Tabbara to two years less one day in jail, provincial, not federal time: