KINGSTON, Ont. - Three members of an Afghanistan-born Montreal family have been found guilty of killing three daughters and a co-wife in what the judge describes as "cold-blooded, shameful murders" resulting from a "twisted concept of honour."
A jury took 15 hours to find Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Yahya, 42, and their son Hamed, 21, each guilty of four counts of first-degree murder in a case so shocking it has riveted Canadians from coast to coast.
Even after the verdict was read, the three denied killing sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, Shafia as well as Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, their father's childless first wife in a polygamous marriage.
Their bodies were found June 30, 2009, in a car submerged in a canal in Kingston, Ont., in a multiple murder the Crown asserted was to avenge the family's outrage because the girls sought teenage freedoms agianst the will of their controlling father and brother.
As the verdicts were being read, Hamed put his head in his hands and hunched over while standing.
Soon, his mother Tooba started to cry.
When the judge asked if they each wanted to say anything, they one by one declared their innocence.
"We are not criminal, we are not murderer, we didn't commit the murder and this is unjust," Mohammad said through a translator.
His wife, Tooba, responded: "Your honourable justice, this is not just. I am not a murderer, and I am a mother, a mother."
Their son said in English: "Sir, I did not drown my sisters anywhere."
But the judge was unmoved, and spoke directly to the cultural cloud that has hung over the case since it began.
"You have each been convicted of the planned and deliberate murder of four members of your family...(A verdict) clearly supported by the evidence presented at this trial," said Judge Robert Maranger.
"It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime...the apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour...that has absolutely no place in any civilized society."
Throughout the judge's statement, Hamed put his head in his hands, while at one point both his mother and father rubbed his back to console him.
The Crown theory was that Shafia, Yahya and Hamed drowned the four victims, placed their bodies in the car, then pushed it into the canal using the family's other vehicle.
The defence had said it was an accident, that they had gone for a joy ride with Zainab driving and accidentally plunged into the canal with Hamed watching, although he didn't call police.
First-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Trouble in the wealthy Afghan-Canadian family had been brewing for some time, the Crown alleged.
The Crown painted a picture of a household controlled by a domineering Shafia, with Hamed keeping his sisters in line and doling out discipline when his father was away on frequent business trips to Dubai.
Some of the Shafia children followed the rules and the others didn't. The ones who couldn't be controlled, the Crown said, are now dead.
Rona was not treated much better than an unruly child, court heard. And all any of them wanted was freedom, the Crown said.
Zainab had run away, but that in itself shamed the family, so she was coaxed back with a promise to marry her boyfriend Ammar, the Crown said. The family viewed him as a loser and was not pleased with the relationship, but if she was married she would be Ammar's problem, not theirs, and her behaviour couldn't affect their honor.
Sahar too was dating, though she tried to keep her Christian boyfriend secret from her parents. Condoms were found in her room, as were pictures of her wearing short skirts and shorts, hugging her boyfriend. That clothing caused Shafia to curse Sahar as a whore after her death.
Two months before she was found in the canal, Sahar told her boyfriend's aunt that if her parents found out about her relationship she was "a dead woman."
Geeti was becoming almost impossible to control: skipping school, failing classes, being sent home for wearing revealing clothes and stealing. But her most egregious breach was telling almost every authority figure she encountered that she wanted to be sent to foster care, the Crown said.
There was a family code of silence and Geeti broke that, it was alleged. If the Shafias thought Zainab and Sahar were hard to control, Geeti would be their worst nightmare. For Geeti, the writing was on the wall, the Crown said.
Rona was Shafia's first wife but, unable to conceive, her status in the Shafia household began eroding as soon as a young Tooba Yahya was brought in as a polygamous wife, court heard.
Shafia beat her and "made life a torture," Rona wrote in a diary. Yahya called her a servant, held onto Rona's passport and would tell her "your life is in my hands," she said.
Rona spent her days wandering the streets, crying, sitting in her room or using payphones to call relatives, she wrote.
Rona, Zainab, Sahar and Geeti died at the tail end of a family trip to Niagara Falls, Ont. They were heading back to Montreal and had stopped in Kingston for the night when tragedy struck.
Zainab secretly took the family's Nissan Sentra, bought used just one day before they left on the trip, and went for a spin with the three others, the family said. They told police that was the last they saw of Zainab.
Hamed would later tell a private investigator of sorts hired by Shafia that he saw the car full of his relatives leave the motel that night and he followed them, concerned for their safety. He followed in the family's Lexus SUV. They ended up at the locks, where Hamed said he rear-ended them accidentally and urged them to turn around.
As he was picking up some pieces of broken headlight, he heard a splash, he said. The car had plunged into the water.
So, he said, he sounded the horn of the Lexus once as a call for help, and took a rope from the trunk and dangled it in the water, dropping some pieces of headlight where they were later found. Seeing no signs of life, he said he drove straight home to Montreal, calling police only to report an accident he admitted he staged to mask damage to the Lexus.
He never mentioned his dead family members.
The Crown said that story was a "complete fabrication." Really, the girls and Rona never even made it to the motel, they said. They were driven to the canal and killed there, court heard. Why else would Hamed and Shafia have checked into the motel for six people when they were a family of 10, the Crown noted.
In fact, the whole "family vacation" itself was a farce, they said; an integral part of the mass murder plan.
By the time they were heading home, passing through Kingston around 1:30 a.m., the plot was going according to plan, the Crown said. They had left Niagara Falls so late in the day that it was pitch black when they passed through Kingston, then got off the highway at the exit for the locks at Kingston Mills. They had stopped there to use the washroom on the way to Niagara Falls, so if any of the kids or Rona — sleeping soundly in the Nissan — woke up, waiting there wouldn't be suspicious, the Crown said.
Yahya waited in the car with the soon-to-be victims while Shafia and Hamed checked into the motel, leaving their other children there.
When father and son return, Rona and the girls are drowned in one of the several areas of open water, either to the point of unconsciousness or death, the Crown said. The cause of death for all four was drowning.
The Crown had no direct proof to cement that theory, but the idea that they were dead before the car went in the water hangs on a few pieces of evidence. Experts testified that markings on the bottom of the Nissan show it got hung up on the ledge when it first was sent over.
That's why the Lexus was used to push it in, and that's why there were pieces of its head lights at the scene, the Crown said, not because Hamed was there and rear-ended them.
There's also the evidence that makes it seem like nobody tried to escape the car during its plunge into the water or as it submerged in the canal. The driver's window was fully open, nobody was wearing a seat belt, and their bodies were found more or less floating over seats — Zainab and Geeti in the front, Sahar and Rona in the back.
The car was found in the morning around 9. The headlights were off and so was the ignition. The evidence simply does not fit with an accident scenario, the Crown said.
The police certainly didn't think so, and began to treat the deaths as suspicious almost immediately. By the time Shafia, Yahya and Hamed were arrested on July 22, 2009, the case against them included intercepted conversations secretly recorded by police. Comments mostly made by Shafia on those wiretaps provided the foundation for the Crown's "honour killing" theory.
"I say to myself, 'Would they come back to life a hundred times, for you to do the same again,'" Shafia says on one. "That is how hurt I am. Tooba, they betrayed us immensely. They violated us immensely. There can be no betrayal, no treachery, no violation more than this."
"Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows...nothing is more dear to me than my honour," Shafia