Terror charges against London, Ont. attack suspect could be Canadian legal milestone
TORONTO -- The laying of terror-related charges against the man accused of killing four people in London, Ont. could mark a new precedent in how Canada prosecutes those accused of terrorist activity, legal experts say.
"I think you will likely see more motivation, and more push from governments, to lay these type of charges," Trevin David, a criminal defence lawyer based in Toronto, told CTV's Your Morning on Tuesday.
Four members of the Afzaal family were killed June 6 when they were hit by a vehicle while out for a walk in their neighbourhood.
Nathaniel Veltman, 20, was arrested shortly after and charged with four-counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. Police have said that they believe Veltman did not know the family, but targeted them with his vehicle because of their Muslim faith.
Although many, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, quickly labelled Veltman's actions a terrorist attack, it was not clear for more than a week whether Veltman would be accused of any offences related to terrorism.
That changed on Monday, when Veltman was informed during a court hearing that prosecutors have received all the necessary approvals to pursue terrorism charges against him. It is not clear which specific charges may be laid.
A 2018 report from Public Safety Canada states that as of that year, 55 individuals had been charged with terrorism-related offences since they became a specific part of the Criminal Code in 2001.
However, David said that terror charges have only been applied to a murder case once before. Last year, Toronto man Saad Akhtar was charged with first-degree murder and a terrorism charge in connection with allegations that he killed a woman with a hammer.
Legal experts say the rarity of terrorism charges being applied in murder cases stems from their holding the Crown to an additional burden of proof without affecting the potential sentence of the accused in any reasonable way.
The maximum penalty for a murder found to have a terroristic motivation is life in prison with no ability to apply for parole for 25 years – exactly the same as the maximum penalty for first-degree murder.
Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer Monte MacGregor told CTV News Channel on Monday that adding the terror charges to Veltman's case allows prosecutors to pursue "two routes of criminal liability," giving them a fallback plan if they are not able to prove the planning and deliberation needed for a first-degree murder conviction.
"It makes sense that it's gone in this direction," he said.
Veltman, who does not yet have a lawyer, next appears in court June 21.
RESOLUTION MAY BE YEARS AWAY
Convicting Veltman of first-degree murder requires the Crown to prove that his actions were planned and deliberate. To convict him of terror offences, the Crown will have to prove that his attack was spurred by ideological or political motivations.
"Given how novel this kind of charge is in Canada, how rarely used, it doesn't much add to the prosecution – but it certainly satiates a lot of Canadians' desire to see this labelled as a terrorist attack," Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer Ari Goldkind said Monday on CTV News Channel.
That extra burden of proof may help explain why terror charges were never pursued in the case of Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette, Toronto van attacker Alek Minassian, or Abdulahai Sharif, who rammed four pedestrians with a truck and stabbed a police officer in Edmonton in 2017.
"[Sharif] had an ISIS flag in the cab of his truck, but he wasn't charged with terrorism. He was charged with multiple counts of attempted murder," Mubin Shaikh, a public safety professor at Seneca College in Toronto, told CTV News Channel on Monday.
Legal experts point to two reasons for the different approach to prosecuting Veltman: pressure from politicians and the public to put Canada's terrorism laws to use in this case, and the speed with which police revealed that they believe he was motivated by hatred.
"I would speculate that they must have got some information very quickly from Mr. Veltman himself, either an admission or a confession," MacGregor said.
"They likely feel that his own assertions [and] whatever evidence was found, that's really going to drive the nature of the prosecution here."
Beyond that, the court proceedings against Veltman will likely shape how terrorist activity in Canada is prosecuted for decades to come.
Though he was never charged with any terrorism offences, Bissonnette was handed the longest sentence in Canadian history – life in prison with no parole eligibility for 40 years. That sentence was reduced on appeal, and the Supreme Court of Canada will have final say later this year.
Similarly, David said that if Veltman is convicted, his sentence will likely be appealed by either his lawyer or the Crown, in an attempt to convince a higher court to set a precedent more to their liking.
And just as Bissonnette's fate remains before the courts more than four years after his attack, appeals would mean that Veltman's final sentence will stay shrouded in uncertainty for quite some time.
"What that means for this family … is unfortunately that this case may not have the closure that they would otherwise hope to receive at the conclusion of this trial," David said.