Verdict in Nathaniel Veltman trial provides a legal roadmap on how acts of terrorism can result in first-degree murder convictions

On June 6, 2021, five members of the Afzaal family were out for an evening walk in London, Ont., when they were deliberately targeted and struck by a man driving a black pickup truck. Only the nine-year-old son survived the attack. Hours after the incident, police stated that the family was struck intentionally.

The trial for the accused killer, Nathaniel Veltman, began on Sept. 5 in Windsor, Ont. The final arguments began on Nov. 14, closing the 11-week trial. On Nov. 16, after deliberating for six hours, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and one account of attempted murder.

As a professor who studies the disaster and emergency management aspects of terrorism, I have been present in the courtroom to observe various phases of the trial, including closing arguments and Veltman’s own testimony.

The trial and subsequent verdict are another chapter in the evolution of how terrorism is defined in Canada. It was a rare case where a domestic terrorist faced a jury of their peers and provides a legal road map for how to successfully apply charges of first-degree murder constituting terrorism.

Understanding the verdict

On the afternoon of Nov. 15, the jury received their instructions from Judge Renee M. Pomerance, who outlined that the crux of the jury’s decision was to be based on whether the Crown had proved four points beyond a reasonable doubt.

First, did Veltman commit an unlawful act in killing the Muslim family? If yes, that meant guilty of manslaughter.

Second, did Velman’s unlawful act cause a death? If yes, that meant guilty of second-degree murder.

Third, did Veltman have the intention required for murder? If yes, that meant guilty of first-degree murder. But first-degree murder rests on two bases.

If the first basis of being planned and deliberate is determined unanimously, the verdict is reached of guilty of first-degree murder. The jury’s work is done. But, if that jury’s decision was not unanimous, the process goes to step four.

Fourth, if the jurors were not unanimous on the murder being planned and deliberate then the second basis for first-degree murder comes into play — terrorism. In her instructions to the jury, the judge specified the definition of terrorism from the Canadian Criminal Code: “an act committed in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.”

Under this situation, all jurors could been unanimous in saying the murders constitute terrorism. Or, some jurors could have said yes it was a planned and deliberate act and others could have said yes it was an act of terrorism. Under either scenario, the jury was determining that Veltman considered guilty of first-degree murder.

Role of terrorism

After a verdict, jurors are prohibited by law from making any public comment about their deliberations. Other than following the instructions, the jury is not required to explain in detail how they came to their decisions.

The first-degree murder verdict could have been arrived at without getting to step four of the decision-making process, where terrorism comes into play. Or a few jury members could have determined that the murders were planned and deliberate, with others deciding that the murders were motivated by terrorism.

This means the public will never know how elements of terrorism contributed to the jurors’ decision.

Precedent-setting implications

This case was significant because it represented the first time in Canada that a jury heard arguments about terrorism as one of the prosecution’s underpinnings for first-degree murder.

Given that the Crown was successful in getting a first-degree murder verdict, the precedent is both practical and symbolic. A sentencing hearing for Veltman will be held Dec. 1, where the Crown will make the case that the murders were an act of terrorism.

From the practical perspective, this case may be a model for how future attacks by homegrown, individually motivated violent extremists of any type are approached by Crown prosecutors.

From a symbolic perspective, the verdict sends a powerful message that certain killers will also be labelled as terrorists.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

It was written by: Jack L. Rozdilsky, York University, Canada.

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Jack L. Rozdilsky receives support for research communication and public scholarship from York University. He also receives research support from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.