Monday, July 15, 2024

For four seconds, Nathaniel Veltman floored the gas pedal, hurtling his pickup truck toward a Muslim family of five out for an evening walk in London, Ontario, killing four of them. The lone survivor was a 9-year-old boy.

The jury, after less than a day of deliberating, found Mr. Veltman, 22, guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder involving the young boy in the June 2021 attack.

Mr. Veltman was also charged with terrorism and jurors heard extensive evidence about his fixation with white supremacist ideologies. But under Canadian law, jurors were not expected to deliver a verdict on that charge, which will be decided later by a judge.

The case represents the first time in Canada that terrorism charges have been applied to a far-right extremism case, according to the government agency that prosecutes federal crimes.

Mr. Veltman’s sentencing date will be set in December where a judge will determine whether he is guilty of terrorism. A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole for 25 years.

Following the verdict, Christopher Hicks, a lawyer for Mr. Veltman, said his client was “in shock” because of the long prison term that awaits him.

Mr. Veltman confessed to the police that he believed the victims he ran over were Muslim because of the clothing they wore and that’s why he aimed his truck at them, prosecutors said during the 10-week trial.

Mr. Veltman had become obsessed with white supremacist ideology, prosecutors said, even writing his own manifesto called “A White Awakening,” which he completed five days before he mowed down the pedestrians.

“His attack was, in Mr. Veltman’s own mind, in his own words, terrorism,” a prosecutor, Fraser Ball, said during his closing argument on Wednesday.

“It was intended to deliver a brutal message,” Mr. Ball told jurors, adding, “It was important to him that his actions inspire other white nationalists. It was important to him that his brutal message was not just an idle threat from someone trapped in jail.”

Mr. Veltman had also searched online for information about a white supremacist shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed 51 people in an attack on two mosques in 2019, prosecutors said.

The trial was held in Windsor, Ontario, just across from Detroit, after the judge in the case, Justice Renee Pomerance of the Superior Court in Ontario, ruled that it should not be held in London, which is midway between Toronto and Detroit.

Similar rulings have been made when a judge is concerned about jury bias, though the reasons for Justice Pomerance’s decision are shielded by a publication ban.

Mr. Veltman’s lawyers did not dispute that their client had driven into the Muslim family, but argued that he had acted impulsively after consuming psilocybin, popularly known as magic mushrooms, several hours before the attack.

He also had mental health issues and struggled “with an urge or obsession to put his foot on the gas,” Justice Pomerance told jurors during her final instructions, recapping the evidence presented during the trial.

The Afzaal family were strangers to Mr. Veltman, then a 20-year-old working at an egg processing plant in London, a university town of over half a million residents surrounded by farmland.

Mr. Veltman drove past the Afzaals near a busy intersection and made a U-turn to run them down, prosecutors said.

Three generations of the family were killed: the youngest was Yumnah Afzaal, 15. Her parents, Salman Afzaal, 46, a physiotherapist, and Madiha Salman, 44, a doctoral student in civil engineering, died alongside Mr. Afzaal’s mother, Talat Afzaal, 74.

Mr. Veltman raced away from the crash, passing red stoplights until he was arrested in the parking lot of a nearby shopping mall. He wore body armor, a helmet and a T-shirt with a Crusader’s Cross, a symbol that has various interpretations in Christianity, but has also been adopted by far-right extremists.

In a recording of an emergency call that was played for the jury, Mr. Veltman told a taxi driver who had called 911 that he committed the attack and wanted to be arrested.

“Mr. Veltman was many things at the scene of his arrest, even on his own evidence: very disrespectful to the police, very rude and cocky, but not depressed, not tormented or despondent,” Mr. Ball said during his closing argument. “The adrenaline was pumping, the excitement. Mr. Veltman smiled the smile of a man who had just done exactly what he spent months planning to do.”

Jurors also watched a video of Mr. Veltman’s confession to a detective in a police interview room, where he seemed relaxed, prosecutors said.

Mr. Veltman, who testified in his own defense, said that one day before the deadly attack, he drove to Toronto, about two hours east, and was seized by an urge to kill Muslims, but ultimately did not pursue it.

Legal experts said the decision by prosecutors to pursue terrorism charges marks a significant shift in how certain acts of violence are categorized.

“We, for years, only understood terrorism that came from those who were inspired by Islam, so this is an acknowledgment that there are multiple forms of terrorism that are risks in the Canadian context,” said Barbara Perry, a professor and director of the Center on Bias, Hate and Extremism at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa.

The attack shocked Canadians and came during a period of restrictions on gatherings to curb the spread of coronavirus. The provincial government temporarily lifted the orders to allow thousands of people to gather for a memorial, attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“The enduring grief, trauma and the irreplaceable void left by the loss of multiple generations has pierced us profoundly,” Tabinda Bukhari, Madiha Salman’s mother, told reporters outside the courtroom following the verdict. “Their loss, and our pain, will always remain palpable.”

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