Nathaniel Veltman looked at his lawyer and stood slowly before being arraigned on four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in Windsor, Ont., on Tuesday morning, as the trial for the accused in the killing of a London family began with jury selection.
“Madam registrar, through counsel, Mr. Veltman wishes a plea of not guilty,” defence lawyer Christopher Hicks said five times in court, after each charge was read out.
Veltman, 22, stood silently, wearing an oversized white dress shirt that was unbuttoned at the collar and untucked from his black dress pants.
The Super Court trial is expected to last about three months. The reasons for its move to Windsor, about 200 kilometres west of London, are covered by a publication ban.
The Afzaals were out for an evening walk in suburban London on June 6, 2021, when they were struck by a vehicle. Yumnah Afzaal, 15, her parents Madiha Salman, 44, and Salman Afzaal, 46, and family matriarch Talat Afzaal, 74, were killed. A nine-year-old boy survived.
The deaths sent shockwaves through the community, bringing politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to London, denouncing Islamophobia and calling for changes to laws.
‘We are looking for justice’
Veltman was arrested in the hours following the attack. His murder charges also include terrorism counts. That means Crown prosecutors must prove his actions were planned and deliberate, but also motivated by a political, religious or ideological cause.
Police and prosecutors allege he was motivated by anti-Muslim hate.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
As jury selection began inside the courthouse, where Justice Renee Pomerance will preside over the trial, the National Coalition of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) spoke outside.
“Tomorrow, September the 6th, 2023, marks exactly 27 months since a horrific tragedy struck the Muslim community in London, Ont.,” said Abd Alfatah Twakkal, who chairs the London Council of Imams.
The crash took the lives of four people, representing three generations, he said.
“Our hope is that we can continue to heal as a community and we’ll achieve some level of closure at the conclusion of this trial.”
Aasiyah Khan, head of the NCCM, said it’s important to focus on the London family members who lost their lives.
“Our community has shown an incredible amount of strength to move forward and with the help of many fellow Canadians, we continue to thrive,” she said.
“Ultimately, we are looking for justice for our London family and for our community to feel protected, to feel safe, and to know that our justice system will do what is necessary to deter this from ever happening again.”