Michael Friscolanti is covering the honour killing trial for Maclean’s, filing regular reports from the Kingston, Ont. courtroom to Macleans.ca and weekly dispatches for the magazine. The reports will continue for the duration of the trial, which is expected to run into December.
Zainab Shafia was found in the front passenger seat, her fingernails painted a light shade of blue. She was 19 years old and had 10 cents in her pocket. Her younger sister, Sahar (purple fingernails; black toe nails), was in the seat directly behind her, a sleeveless top covering her pierced belly button. Thirteen-year-old Geeti, the youngest of the dead Shafia girls, was floating over the driver’s seat, dressed in knee-length jeans and a brown shirt. Like Sahar, the big sister she idolized, Geeti had a stud through her belly button.
Rona Amir Mohammad—the girls’ “stepmother” in their dad’s polygamous, patriarchal world—was the fourth relative discovered at the bottom of the Rideau Canal. Pulled from the back seat of the sunken Nissan Sentra, she was wearing six yellow bangles on her left wrist and three pairs of earrings. Dr. Christopher Milroy, the forensic pathologist who examined Rona’s lifeless body, noticed something else: two “fresh bruises” on the crown of her head, a total of 6 cm in diameter.
A close-up of those bruises was shown to a Kingston, Ont., courtroom on Monday—part of a graphic slideshow of autopsy photos that could prove crucial to the jury’s eventual verdict. As Dr. Milroy explained, Zainab and Geeti suffered nearly identical skull injuries, albeit smaller. “It clearly requires explanation,” he testified. “It is unusual that all three would have similar injuries.”
This much is not in dispute: extensive toxicology tests conducted on all four victims came back negative for a wide range of incapacitating substances, from alcohol to carbon monoxide to cyanide. Milroy also confirmed drowning as the official cause of death. However, the Ottawa-based pathologist could not say with scientific certainty whether the women actually died at the Kingston Mills Locks, or drowned somewhere else before being dumped in the canal. “The pathology is neutral on that scenario,” he testified. “I’m not able to determine, from a pathology point of view, whether they drowned somewhere else and then went into the water.”
The bruises certainly suggest the latter.
According to prosecutors, what appeared at first glance to be a tragic wrong turn was in fact a mass “honour kill” orchestrated by the girls’ own father, mother and brother. They died, the Crown claims, because their Westernized behaviour—boyfriends, make-up, typical teenage insubordination—so shamed the Afghan family’s good Muslim name that they believed execution was the only way to restore their reputation. (Rona, it’s alleged, was a throw-in of sorts, murdered because of a longstanding feud with her fellow wife.) All three suspects—Mohammad Shafia, 58; Tooba Yahya, 41; and Hamed Shafia, 20—have pleaded not guilty to four counts each of first-degree murder.
Gerard Laarhuis, one of two prosecutors working the case, warned the packed courtroom about the nature of the photos he was about to display. By then, Yahya had already been escorted out of the prisoners’ box, the sight of her deceased daughters too much to bear.
Rona was the first to flash on the big-screen televisions, her corpse still dressed in the jeans and blue top she was wearing three days earlier, when the family left their Niagara Falls “vacation” for the drive home to Montreal. As is typical during autopsies, the skin on her head was peeled back to allow a closer look at the bruising. “It is not a severe fracture, but neither is it minor,” Milroy said, using the arrow of a mouse to pinpoint the injury. “It was a firm impact.” When asked if such a blow could have knocked her unconscious, Milroy said it’s impossible to know for sure. “I can’t tell you what the likelihood is, but I can tell you that any blow to the head can certainly render somebody unconscious.”
Zainab appeared next, wearing tight black jeans, a red shirt and cardigan sweater—which, for reasons unknown, was on backwards. She had two bruises: one on her scalp, a diameter of 1.5 cm, and another on the right side of the crown, slightly smaller. In the bulletproof prisoners’ box, their ankles shackled, father and son could barely look at the screen. At times, they wiped their eyes with Kleenex.
The bruises on Geeti’s scalp were smaller than Rona’s but larger than Zainab’s. It is likely, Milroy said, that they were caused by a single impact of some kind. In his accompanying report, he described Geeti as “a well-nourished and well developed adolescent female.” She had 19 cents in her pocket.
Sahar, 17 when she perished, was not included among the post-mortem photos; of the four, she was the only one not bruised or scarred, at least not physically. Like the others, her hands and feet were wrinkled from hours in the water, and her stomach was full of potatoes, likely French fries. The vacationers had stopped at a McDonald’s just hours before they died.
Although police never found another crime scene, prosecutors obviously believe that the victims were either dead or unconscious before plunging into the water. None of them was wearing a seatbelt, and although the driver’s side window was wide open, nobody managed to escape.
“Were each of them fit, healthy, and able bodied?” Laarhuis asked Milroy.
“What would happen if a sleeping person went into the water?”
“They would wake up,” Milroy said. “They would wake up immediately.”
During cross-examination, Shafia’s lawyer asked Milroy if it’s possible that the women bumped their heads on the rear windshield as the car fell into the water. (“I don’t know if it’s most likely,” he said. “But it’s certainly a possibility.”) Peter Kemp also asked the doctor, who has conducted nearly 5,000 autopsies in his career, how long it would take to drown someone by holding their head under water.
“It would probably take two or three minutes,” he said. “But it could take as long as ten.”
“So to drown each one individually could take up to 40 minutes?” Kemp asked.
“It could be less than that,” Milroy answered.
Forensics aside, the jury also heard Monday from yet another witness who claimed that Mohammad Shafia was threatening murder in the weeks before half his family turned up dead. A relative, whose identity is protected by a temporary publication ban, said Rona herself overheard Shafia, Yahya and Hamed whispering about a plot to kill her and Zainab. It was April 2009, and Zainab, the eldest of the children, had just run away from home and taken refuge in a women’s shelter.
“Shafia was really upset, he was angry,” said the relative, quoting one of her many phone conversations with Rona. “He said: ‘If she doesn’t return back, I will kill her, because she dishonoured me.’” The witness said one of the other accused (either Tooba or Hamed; she can’t recall) asked Shafia: “What about the other one?”
“Shafia said: ‘I will kill the other one, too,’” the witness said. “Rona said: ‘It must have been me.’”
Rona was Shafia’s first bride, and as the jury is well aware, she was unable to bear children. After a decade of failed fertility treatments, Shafia married a second wife: Yahya, 17 year his junior. Together, they had seven children—and Rona helped raise them. “Shafia said to Rona: ‘I want to keep you. Stay with me. If I can get children, that will be good for you because they can support you,’” the witness said. “He, himself, he didn’t like two wives. But he said he had to in order to have children.”
The family left Afghanistan for Dubai in 1992, and then immigrated to Canada in the summer of 2007. (Rona joined them a few month’s later on a visitor’s visa; Shafia told immigration authorities that she was his cousin, and they believed him.) But once in Canada, the witness said, Rona was ostracized and ignored. Shafia gave her a $50 monthly allowance, she said, and Tooba instructed the children not to speak to her. “She was crying,” said the witness. “She was saying: ‘I am fed up with my life and I want God to finish my life. I want to be in an accident.’”
After Rona told her about the death threat, the witness said she urged her to go to police. Petrified, Rona refused. “She was shivering,” said the woman, who travelled thousands of kilometers to testify. “She was afraid. I told her: ‘Don’t be afraid. This is not Afghanistan. This is not Dubai. This is Canada. You don’t have any problem. Don’t be afraid. Nothing will happen.’ ”
She last spoke to Rona at the end of June 2009, right before the family’s road trip to the Falls. Days later, when Dr. Milroy completed his autopsy report, he noted the ring on Rona’s left finger and the watch on her other wrist. In his report, on page eight, he wrote: “Non-pregnant.”