Three members of a family from Montreal accused of killing four other family members made their first appearance in court in months Tuesday in Kingston, Ontario. The accused mass murderers, who are originally from Afghanistan, appeared in good spirits and healthy as they emerged from a prisoner transportation van outside the Kingston courthouse and were led, in shackles, into the basement of the building. For the first time, one of the accused killers spoke to media, although briefly. I captured the short exchange on video (available after the jump) as Mohammad Shafia asked a question.
Translation trouble slowed to a crawl the first day of a key court proceeding in the mass murder case against three Montrealers.
Mohammad Shafia, 57, his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 40, and their son Hamed, 19, appeared at the superior courthouse in Kingston, marking their first appearance in court in five months.
Mr. Justice Robert Maranger began hearing pre-trial motions, a process that is expected to last roughly a month and set the stage for a long and complex trial in the spring.
The Shafias are accused of killing four family members, three teenage sisters and Mohammad Shafia’s first wife.
Charges of conspiracy to commit murder laid at the same time that the charges of first-degree murder were laid in July 2009, have been dropped.
Crown prosecutors Gerard Laarhuis and Laurie Lacelle would not explain why the conspiracy charges were dropped.
Evidence given at the pre-trial stage and submissions made by lawyers cannot be reported under sweeping publication bans that are in place.
Tuesday marked the first real test of an array of new technology installed in the historic courthouse to accommodate the complex case. Witnesses are appearing who speak Farsi, a dialect of Persian, French and Spanish.
Two translation booths, each capable of holding two interpreters, were erected on a large raised platform to the left of the judge. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of infra-red transmitters and receivers are in place, allowing everyone in the courtroom to listen to the simultaneous interpretation on wireless headsets.
Tuesday, two Farsi interpreters and one French interpreter were in place.
A French-speaking Montreal police officer was the first witness. As she began testifying, it was soon obvious that the French interpreter was not able to operate the equipment to ensure that English translations were transmitted properly.
A technician in the courtroom rushed to the booth to help him, but after several failed attempts to sort out the problem, Lacelle suggested a low-tech solution.
“Your honour, I wonder if it might be more efficient to adopt the approach we had before,” she said.
With that, the interpreter left the booth and stood next to the witness. He translated English and French by listening to the people on both sides of him.
Lawyers were only able to get through three of four witnesses scheduled to appear.
The final witness of the day was a brother of one of the victims. Wali Abdali came from France to testify. He is one of several siblings of Rona Amir Mohammad.
The 50-year-old woman, along with three teenage Shafia sisters, Zainab, 19, Sahari, 17, and Geeti, 13, were found dead June 30 in a car submerged in the Rideau Canal at Kingston Mills.
Rona Mohammad’s family members told police they believed it was an honour killing.
The three accused appeared fit and comfortable as they piled out of a prisoner transportation van Tuesday morning and made their way, in shackles, into the courthouse.
Mohammad Shafia was the only one of the three to speak.
“Why you taking photo?” he asked a Whig-Standard photographer.
He would not answer any questions.
Inside the courtroom, the trio sat side by side in the glass-enclosed prisoner box. They watched and listened intently as witnesses testified.
They did not show any emotion.
The proceeding continues Wednesday.
(this story also appears today in The Kingston Whig-Standard)