Jurors see submerged victims in eerie underwater video

Rona and SaharFor the first nine minutes, it is an eerie underwater chronicle of a car in an alien environment. Then, through the murky water, something human comes into view. “That would be the inside of the car, steering wheel and legs from one of the victims, through the front windshield,” Constable Glenn Newell said, as he narrated the video he shot of a submerged car that contained the bodies of three teenage Montreal sisters and their stepmother, alleged victims of an honour killing staged to look like a car crash.

Newell’s video, shown Tuesday morning, was the jury’s first look at the victims as they were found more than two years ago in a shallow canal.

The veteran police diver recovered the bodies of Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13, along with Rona Amir Mohammad, from the car on June 30, 2009. Three weeks later, the girls’ parents, Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their son, Hamed 20, were arrested and each charged with four counts of first-degree murder.

They have pleaded not guilty.

The dead girls’ mother was not in court as the video played. Her lawyer said it would be traumatic for her to see the bodies of her dead children. She returned to the courtroom as soon as the video concluded.

Most of the 14-minute video shows technical aspects of the discovery, the position of the car underwater and various dents and scrapes. But there are grim moments, too.

The camera shows a thick matte of hair, the head of a victim wedged against the door pillar at the side of the car. As the camera moves along the driver’s side of the car and peers in through the open driver’s side window, stark white feet are visible. Later, the camera pans along the outside of the vehicle beside the rear passenger window, which is obscured by a blanket, a purse and a yellow plastic bag. As the camera moves around, a partially clenched hand, poking through the debris, comes into focus.

Hamed and Mohammad Shafia showed no emotion as the video played and appeared to be staring straight ahead.

The victims were found June 30, 2009, in a Nissan Sentra submerged in a shallow canal in Kingston. Autopsies revealed that three of them had fresh bruises on the crowns of their heads. Newell testified Monday that he was surprised that no one escaped the sinking car through the open driver’s window. Autopsies did not determine when the victims drowned.

In response to questions from Peter Kemp, the defence lawyer representing Shafia, Newell said the four women could have banged their heads on the passenger compartment ceiling as they were drowning.

“That would be totally feasible,” Newell said.

Jurors also heard that Mohammad Shafia and Hamed appeared at 2 a.m. on June 30 at the front desk of a small Kingston motel near the canal asking to rent two rooms.

When clerk Robert Miller asked how many people were checking in, he was told nine people, then six. He said he saw only the two men and one vehicle, a large grey SUV.

After checking the men in, Miller watched the vehicle leave and head north toward Highway 401.

“It struck me as odd,” he testified. Miller stayed up to watch to see if the vehicle returned, but when it was not back within half an hour, he went to bed.

A Montreal police officer testified that she was called to a strip mall parking lot a few blocks from the Shafia home in St. Léonard just before 8 a.m. that morning when Hamed Shafia called 911 to report a collision in the family’s Lexus with a guardrail.

Constable Nathalie Ledoux said she couldn’t understand why the driver had steered so close to the barrier in the large parking lot. He asked her if he could have the damage repaired right away, Ledoux testified.

A Kingston police identification officer also testified that three days after the Sentra was found in the canal, he realized that pieces of broken headlight lens that appeared to come from the Lexus, and were collected in Montreal and at the canal, appeared to align.

Constable Rob Etherington said he believed his discovery was fairly important.

“Something was going on that we didn’t know about yet,” he testified.

The accused mother and father have said publicly that they believe their eldest daughter took the family’s Sentra for a joyride after they checked into the Kingston motel and then crashed the car into the canal.

Prosecutors allege that the Lexus was used to push the Sentra into the canal and that Hamed then staged a phony crash in Montreal to conceal the damage to the Lexus. The SUV was found in the garage of the Shafia home on July 1.

Motel staff also testified Tuesday that around noon on June 30, they saw a member of the Shafia family arrive at the motel in a greenish mini van.

A collision reconstruction expert who examined the scene at the canal and the Shafia vehicles is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

(This story appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)

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