When a small black Nissan Sentra was found submerged in a shallow canal in eastern Ontario on June 30, 2009 with four dead females inside – members of the Shafia family – investigators had one critical question: Was it a freak accident or a heinous murder? Key to teasing out the answer was a meticulous analysis of the Nissan, another Shafia vehicle – a Lexus SUV – and the scene at the canal. Constable Chris Prent, a provincial police officer and collision reconstruction expert, produced a detailed 94-page document. In it, Prent revealed his conclusion: The Nissan was deliberately pushed into the canal by someone operating the Lexus. This theory was the centrepiece of the criminal case that saw three members of the Shafia family – Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya, and their son Hamed – each convicted by a jury of four counts of first-degree murder. Constable Prent’s 94-page document, titled An Analysis of the Events at Kingston Mills Locks (Rideau Canal), City of Kingston – was not given to the jurors. The 12 people who decided that the Shafias were guilty of mass murder did not see the document.
Thousands of pages of documentary evidence, photos and videos were released publicly because they were submitted as evidence at the trial, but Prent’s 94-page report was not made public. In my pursuit of the story, I obtained a copy of Prent’s report and I’m making it accessible to all online here. Getting the document, which was discussed but never introduced as an exhibit at the murder trial, was just one of many obstacles in the journalistic pursuit of the Shafia story. If you’d like to know more about how I chased this story over a three-year span, I encourage you to join me at 7:30 p.m. on January 31 at Pages book store in Kensington for the Calgary launch of Without Honour: The True Story of the Shafia Family and the Kingston Canal Murders, published by HarperCollins. I’ll be available to sign copies of the book and answer questions.
I’m excited for this opportunity to meet readers and share behind-the-scenes background on the case, including the Prent report. It isn’t clear precisely why the document was not tendered as an exhibit during the trial. When Prent testified, the Crown indicated that his report would not be filed because the officer’s testimony constituted his evidence, and not the document. Passages from his report were read aloud and he was questioned about his findings. Defence lawyers parsed paragraphs in the document and challenged his conclusions.
Other technical experts who testified during the trial were treated differently. A forensic expert who examined a Shafia computer and cellphones testified and his report was filed as an exhibit. A scientist who examined paint samples and other substances found at the canal testified and his report also was filed as an exhibit. A lengthy report by an officer who compiled cellphone data was filed as an exhibit, in addition to the officer’s testimony. Toxicology and pathology reports were filed, in addition to the testimony of the forensic pathologist who autopsied the victims. The contradiction is one of many puzzling aspects of a remarkably complex case that culminated in a 47-day murder trial that heard 58 witnesses from around the world who testified in four languages. The three Shafias were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, though they have maintained their innocence and appealed. (UPDATE 2016: Their appeals were rejected.)
Here is a complete and unedited copy of the Prent report: