A British Columbia Supreme Court jury has retired to deliberate in the first-degree murder trial of Ibrahim Ali, more than eight months after he pleaded not guilty to killing a 13-year-old girl in a Metro Vancouver park in 2017.
The judge's instructions to the jury on Thursday had been delayed, after Ali's lawyer Kevin McCullough told the court the defence team had received death threats over the case.
In remarks that can only now be reported with the jury sequestered, McCullough on Tuesday read out a message that said his family faced "a violent and brutal death" before Christmas.
McCullough was unable to attend court in person the next day because he was at home in Victoria due to the threats, forcing the instruction of the jury to be postponed until Thursday.
Justice Lance Bernard told the jurors the Crown’s case is circumstantial, requiring them to infer as the only reasonable conclusion that Ali forced the girl off a path and into a wooded area in Burnaby’s Central Park, where he raped and fatally strangled her in July 2017.
Bernard said Ali’s lawyers meanwhile argued that semen inside the girl’s body that matched Ali's DNA could have been the result of an earlier encounter with an "innocent explanation" and Ali isn't the person who killed her and dumped her body in the park.
The body of the girl, whose name is covered by a publication ban, was found just hours after her mother reported her missing.
McCullough told the jury earlier in the trial that the defence team would not be calling evidence, saying the Crown hadn't met the burden of proof.
Thursday’s hearing began with a request from Crown lawyers to enter in-camera proceedings, without the public or media present.
With the hearing opened to observers about an hour later, McCullough later told Bernard he wanted to make submissions about the instructions to the jury, calling them “fraught” with mistakes.
But the judge declined and proceeded to call in the jury.
Bernard told the jurors they have four possible options for the verdict: finding Ali guilty of first-degree murder as charged, finding him guilty of the lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter, or finding him not guilty entirely.
He said they may disagree on issues during their deliberations, but their ultimate verdict must be unanimous.
Bernard outlined to the jury how murder is classified as first degree if committed with certain other offences, which include sexual assault, regardless of whether the killing is planned or deliberate.
He said that doesn’t mean an assault and the act causing death must have occurred at exactly the same time. Rather, it would be sufficient that the acts were “temporarily and causally connected” as part of a “continuing domination” over the victim, Bernard said.
He said the Crown relied on the evidence of a neuropathologist and a forensic pathologist to conclude the girl died of strangulation, while Ali’s lawyers argued the cause of death is a mystery, in part because of the absence of “defensive wounds” on her body.
The following contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence. Reader discretion advised.
Bernard took the jury through evidence provided by several Crown witnesses, including Dr. Jason Morin, the forensic pathologist who examined the girl’s body and testified that he observed injuries to her vagina, and semen “pooling” inside.
The judge said Morin had testified that semen is subject to gravity and it would have run out of the girl’s body and onto her underwear had she stood up after the sexual encounter, but the trial heard no such stains were found.
Bernard said McCullough had summarized the defence position by saying that “apart from (the girl) and Ibrahim Ali having sex, everything else is speculation.”
The defence lawyer had also said the Crown had no evidence to prove the sex was non-consensual, Bernard recalled in his instructions to the jury.
In his closing remarks last week, McCullough told the jury the girl wasn’t the “innocent” depicted in a “rose-coloured” portrayal by the Crown.
McCullough said the girl may have found Ali attractive, and that when Crown witnesses referred to her as "a child" instead of a teenager they were trying to "play on (the jurors') emotions."
Ali’s expression appeared mostly neutral as he listened to Bernard through an interpreter on Thursday.
At one point, moments after Bernard announced a lunch break, Ali stood to address the judge and motioned to the jury.
McCullough rose to speak with his client, who was then escorted from the courtroom.
The defence lawyer attempted to address Bernard about his instructions to the jury, saying, “no reference to cross-examination, only to direct examination, is that how it goes?”
Bernard told McCullough there was no place for his comments at that time.
On Wednesday, appearing by video from Victoria, McCullough said police had identified the IP address where threats against him originated, although they couldn’t yet say who was behind them.
He told Bernard that he had gone home to Victoria on Tuesday night because he didn't have a "safety plan" in place, and then his flight back to Vancouver on Wednesday was cancelled by fog.