It sounded, for a few minutes Friday at the murder trial of a Montreal mother, father and son accused of killing four family members, that no one in the packed courtroom was breathing, save for the Crown prosecutor. Gerard Laarhuis confronted Tooba Mohammad Yahya (inset) with a detailed theory of how she and her co-accused, Mohammad Shafia, 58, and son Hamed, 21, murdered three daughters and her husband’s first wife and conspired to conceal it. It was the first time in the three months since the trial began that the prosecution had clearly outlined all the key elements of the alleged crime.
Spectators were nearly silent as Laarhuis put the plot to Yahya. First, he suggested, the victims were drowned at Kingston Mills, the isolated spot along the Rideau Canal in Kingston.
He noted that in an interrogation July 22, 2009, the day she was arrested, Yahya told a police officer “if I was awake and they were pressing and putting them into the water, I might have … heard a sound of splashing or something.”
Laarhuis noted that the interrogator had never used that language to describe what might have happened and he never referred to “splashing,” which suggested a person or people in the water.
“These were not random words and they were not careless words,” Laarhuis said, speaking softly. “I’m putting to you that the ‘they’ that were pressing and putting them into the water were Shafia and Hamed and you saw it.”
“I have never seen those things,” replied Yahya, 42, who has maintained that much of what she told the interrogator was a lie, concocted to get him to leave her alone or to save her son Hamed.
Laarhuis said someone drove the car containing “the bodies” to the stone edge of the canal wall.
“You needed a place where the car would drop straight down and be under the water,” Laarhuis said. The headlights of the car, a black Nissan Sentra, were off. The wipers were off. The dome light was off, he said.
The driver got out of the vehicle, laden with four lifeless bodies, reached back inside the vehicle through the open driver’s side window and moved the shifter into first gear, thinking the vehicle would roll into the water on its own power.
“What none of you expected, what was not part of the plan, was that the Nissan would get hung up,” Laarhuis said. “Do you agree with that?”
“No, never,” answered Yahya, through a Dari interpreter.
The predicament forced the killers to improvise, Laarhuis said. He suggested someone drove their other vehicle, a Lexus SUV, behind the Nissan and pushed it over the stone ledge and into the water, causing damage to the Lexus and the rear end of the Nissan.
“No sir, we are not murderers,” Yahya retorted angrily. “We were a very sincere and collected family.
“This crime, we would never do such a crime. Don’t ever tell me such a thing. I’m a mother … if you’re a mother then you could know what’s in the heart of a mother for a child. It’s just a mom know that; no one else can feel that. Don’t ever tell me that I killed my children. No, never.”
Early on the morning of June 30, 2009, the Nissan was found submerged in about three metres of water in the canal in Kingston. Inside were the bodies of three Shafia children, Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13. Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, also was found dead inside the car. The victims had drowned. Mohammad was Shafia’s first wife, whom he married in his native Afghanistan. The family moved to Canada in 2007 and settled in St. Leonard.
Three weeks after the deaths, the trio was arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder. They have pleaded not guilty. They have said that they stopped around 2 a.m. at a motel in Kingston during a drive home to Montreal from Niagara Falls and Zainab likely took the car without permission and crashed it into the canal.
During Yahya’s interrogation July 22, she told the police officer that the Nissan was never at the motel, a detail that fits the Crown theory of the crime but is inconsistent with the family’s account of events.
Yahya has testified that she lied throughout the interrogation, in part because she feared her son Hamed was going to be tortured in cold water.
“You wanted to save Hamed all the time from going under water,” Laarhuis noted. “Why didn’t you try to save your daughters from going under water?”
Yahya began to sob as she answered.
“If I knew that my daughters would have gone under the water, I would have given my life, but I wouldn’t let my daughters … die.”
Before court adjourned for the weekend, Laarhuis said he likely has another two hours of questions for Yahya, who was on the witness stand for five consecutive days.
Defence lawyers are expected to call several more witnesses before the trial concludes.
(this appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)