Stereotyping and prejudice: Were they a factor in the Shafia’s verdict?

Imagine you are that diver: the diver who goes into the water and brings up four dead bodies. Imagine seven years later the people convicted of the crime are saying they were victims. They are saying they are victims even though they are in prison serving their first-degree murder charge. There is evidence stacked against them but they say it all boils down to two things that have haunted the world for years and years: stereotyping and prejudice.

On June 30, 2009 Kingston, Ontario was rocked with news that the bodies of four women were found at the bottom of the Kingston Mills locks of the Rideau Canal. At first glance, it was believed to be an accident but with a closer look and an in-depth investigation, the Kingston Police quickly realized that that was not the case.

Stereotyping and prejudice have been confused with one another but they are similar, according to Kimberly Clow, an associate professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). Stereotyping is defined as when somebody is different from another person and is judged because of it. This can include being judged by things like a person’s race, gender, income and social status.

Moving away from his hometown and moving to Canada in 2007, Mohammed Shafia believed that since he was Muslim and grew up around religious values, his daughters and the rest of his family should have the same values he grew up on and still believes. However, his three daughters and first wife didn’t believe they should follow the same values because they moved to Canada and it was a different place.

Mohammed Shafia’s first wife Rona, 52 and his three daughters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17 and Geeti, 13 were all found murdered early morning on June 30. Mohammed, his second wife Tooba and their son Hamed became the prime suspects in the investigation after the Kingston Police deduced that the accident was in fact murder.

What followed was a long line of investigations that resulted in the arrest of Mohammed, his second wife Tooba and their son Hamed. The Kingston Police were able to wiretap the Shafia’s van, which caught Mohammed, and Tooba discussing the four women murdered. Mohammed said some things about his daughters that were caught on tape and mounted the already growing evidence on the three Shafia’s.

In a conversation with Tooba that Kingston Police picked up on a wire tap and put into evidence during court, Mohammed said that even if the girls come back to life a hundred times he would cut them into pieces. This furthered the police’s suspicion that the three family members were the ones behind the murders.

Rob Tripp, author of the book Without Honour, chronicled the Shafia’s life and the murders that occurred in Kingston. Tripp said that he worked on the book for the better part of three years.

“I was surprised by many other elements of the backstory of the Shafia’s lives and the criminal case – not surprising given that I spent most of three full years researching the case, writing newspaper stories and my book about it,” said Tripp, in an email. The murders and the trial was highly publicized with the courthouse being filled each day with journalists, according to Tripp who sat everyday on a public gallery bench, just a few feet away from the accused.

The evidence the Kingston Police collected started to prove a much darker picture of the life that the four murdered women lived. In her diary, Rona wrote about the abuse that she endured from both Mohammed and Tooba. There was also the wiretap in the Shafia’s van, as well as internet searches from Hamed’s computer in the days leading up to the murder. One of Hamed’s computer searches asked ‘where to commit a murder’ and prompted the Kingston Police’s suspicions to grow.

Kimberly Clow, an associate professor for UOIT in the Faculty of Social Science & Humanities Department, mentioned that because in Rona’s diary there was talk of abuse, the defence may have a better case to reject the appeal because of the domestic violence.

“The defense may be able to claim because they are being accused of domestic violence, there is reason to believe that they are guilty,” said Clow.

Mohammed, Tooba and Hamed were charged with first-degree murder. If convicted they would all receive automatic life sentences with no chance of parole for at least 25 years. The trial began on October 20, 2011 in Kingston and lasted just over four months. There were many witnesses who took the stand, some in favour of the Shafia on trial, and some not. The court heard from the other Shafia kids in favour of their parents and their brother. The court also heard from police officers who were involved with the case and an honour-killing expert. It took the jury 15 hours to come to a verdict and on January 29, 2012, all three Shafia’s on trial were found guilty of first-degree murder.

While Clow talked about the domestic violence aspect of what Rona suffered, Tripp went more into detail about the appeals that the Shafia’s have filed with the court.

In 2015, it was announced that Mohammed, Tooba and Hamed were all appealing the courts decisions to convict them of first-degree murder. The three claimed, through their lawyers, that they were victims of “highly prejudicial evidence” and “stereotyping,” according to a document filed by the three Shafia’s lawyers.

The lawyers for the three Shafias claimed that Dr. Shahzrad Mojab, an honour killing expert, had the jurors think of a scenario that was not related to the case at hand, yet had some similarities but also discrepancies. Since the cases were not the same though, the document that was drawn up by the Shafia’s lawyers says that Mohammed, Tooba and Hamed were victims of cultural stereotyping.

However, Rob Tripp, the author of the Shafia murder book and somebody who has researched the whole case, believes that the appeal will be rejected.

“I believe the main arguments will be rejected because the trial judge was thorough, accommodating and took pains to limit the scope of Mojab’s (the Crown’s honour killing expert Dr. Shahzrad Mojab) testimony. His charge to the jury was carefully constructed after lengthy deliberation with Crown and defence counsel,” said Tripp. “I think the Court of Appeal is unlikely to interfere with a jury verdict in a case so complex that was handled so carefully by an experienced trial judge.”

When the Shafia’s verdict was announced in the courtroom, the judge gave each of the convicted a chance to say something, before they were taken away. Mohammed said, “We didn’t commit the murder and this is unjust.” While Tooba said, “Your honourable justice, this is not just. I am not a murderer and I am a mother.”

The Shafias claimed that stereotyping played a role in their conviction brings up the question of the effects that stereotyping has on things like the justice system. Stereotypes and prejudice are everywhere and are not subjected to just the courts.

With the appeal still active in the courts, there is more speculation than ever about what is going to be happening with the appeal. While the crown believes the three Shafias do not deserve a new trial, it is still up in the air about what will be happening. While stereotyping and prejudice has changed over the years, it is still very much an issue. Yet, with the evidence stacked against the Shafias and the guilty verdict that was already given, one has to wonder if the appeal will hold any merit. Only time will tell.

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Reba Pennell is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. When it comes to reporting, she enjoys covering a wide variety of events and stories. She likes to spend her spare time reading, working on her novel and hanging out with friends and family. Reba hopes to work in a newspaper setting following graduation.