A landmark trial that put Canada’s terrorism laws in the spotlight has culminated in a guilty verdict, but what role terror allegations played in the jury’s decision to convict Nathaniel Veltman in a deadly attack on a Muslim family will remain a mystery.
Jurors on Thursday found the 22-year-old Veltman guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder for hitting the Afzaal family with his truck while they were out for a walk in London, Ont., on June 6, 2021.
The judge overseeing the trial, Justice Renee Pomerance, had instructed the jury they could deliver a first-degree murder verdict if they unanimously agreed that the Crown established Veltman had intended to kill the victims, and planned and deliberated his attack.
She also told the jurors they could reach a first-degree murder conviction if they found that the killings were terrorist activity.
Juries do not provide details on how they reach their decisions, nor can they be questioned on the matter.
However, judges in jury trials typically make findings of fact as part of the sentencing process, and Pomerance is likely to weigh in on the terror aspect at that time.
“The judge can take her own view of the facts,” Veltman’s lawyer, Christopher Hicks, said Thursday after the verdict.
“The jury’s decision doesn’t say whether they found him guilty of first-degree murder according to the Criminal Code, planning and deliberation, or because of the terrorism allegation – we don’t know and we can’t ask the jury any questions, so we’ll see what the judge says at the sentencing.”
A finding of terrorist activity wouldn’t affect the penalty for first-degree murder, which automatically carries a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, Hicks said. Rather, the defence lawyer said he suspected it would be raised as a potential aggravating factor for the attempted murder conviction.
The case, which played out in a Windsor, Ont., courtroom, was the first where Canada’s terrorism laws were put before a jury in a first-degree murder trial.
It’s also the only murder case so far involving terror allegations on the basis of an association with white supremacy, and one of a few recent terror-related cases where someone is accused of planning and executing their actions alone, rather than as part of a group such as ISIS, said Michael Nesbitt, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in anti-terrorism and national security laws.
The Veltman trial, along with a small handful of others, is likely to force the courts to confront the terror law’s lack of clear definition of what constitutes ideology, a key element of terrorism, and address what kind of evidence is needed to prove ideology when someone isn’t connected to a particular group, he said.
However, the fact that Veltman’s case was heard by a jury rather than a judge alone complicates things slightly, he said.
“You’re not going to get the written reasons for (the verdict), which tends to be where we’d look for a lot of the details that would provide us with the precedential value,” he said.
“You’re not going get the 50-page written opinion connecting the evidence to the various elements of the offence like you would with a judge, so it’s going to be harder to parse. But you are going to be able to hear what the judge says along the way, which will help provide some detail.”
He said some information can generally be drawn from a judge’s instructions to the jury on the elements of the offences, and possibly at the appeal level down the line if those instructions are deemed to have been flawed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2023.