Top News

Memorial University student found guilty of attempted murder on Signal Hill

Justice Vikas Khaladkar of the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court arrives to deliver his verdict in the case of a MUN student charged with attempted murder. Khaladkar found the man guilty and ordered him to be taken into custody to await sentencing.
Justice Vikas Khaladkar of the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court arrives to deliver his verdict in the case of a MUN student charged with attempted murder. Khaladkar found the man guilty and ordered him to be taken into custody to await sentencing. - Tara Bradbury/The Telegram
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

It was hard to determine — if indeed one can — exactly what a Memorial University PhD student was feeling when he heard the words “guilty of attempted murder” while sitting in the prisoner’s dock at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Thursday morning.

The verdict was a long time coming: it has been more than three years since he was charged with attempting to kill his friend by trying to push him and himself over a cliff at Signal Hill in a murder-suicide attempt. It had been 10 months since the beginning of his trial, which was spread out over a period of time and ended in March.

When Justice Vikas Khaladkar read aloud a summary of his 44-page written decision, ending with the guilty verdict, the student — sitting in the dock with his face mostly covered by a surgical mask — didn’t move.

His case before the court was one of circumstantial evidence, language barriers and cultural diversity, with testimony from police, a high-angle rescue expert, a MUN engineering professor, linguistic experts, the accused and the complainant.

At times there was no common ground between the Crown and defence witnesses. Two linguists, called by the Crown and defence to translate a series of text messages between the accused and his brothers, gave opposing interpretations. The complainant described things the accused said never happened.

The names of both men are protected by a publication ban.

In the end, Khaladkar accepted the victim’s version of events. While the victim was a “diligent and careful witness who took great pains to ensure that he was neither exaggerating nor underestimating,” the accused's testimony was not believable, he said.

“I don’t buy it,” the judge stated outright. “The evidence of the accused at trial was contrived, in my opinion.”

The student, who had come to St. John ‘s from Iran to work on his PhD at Memorial University, was charged in April 2017 after he lured his colleague, who was also Iranian and studying in the same program, to Signal Hill on the pretense of going skiing. While standing on the edge of a cliff in the area called Ladies’ Lookout, the accused grabbed the complainant and attempted to throw them both over the side. They landed about 15 feet down the slope, caught in brush.

"Right now I think he was trying to kill himself and he wanted me, a close friend, to be with him when he was doing suicide," the victim testified with the help of a translator, saying he didn’t think his friend was a murderer.

Prosecutor Jude Hall presented a series of text messages written by the accused at RNC headquarters after his arrest and sent to his friend, urging him to “Take back your words” to police and “Stop playing with my life.”

Hall also presented a message exchange between the accused and his brother in the days before the murder attempt. According to the linguist who translated the messages for police, the accused spoke of “thinking of killing" the complainant and himself, and indicated he was depressed.

Defence lawyer Mark Gruchy called a different Farsi-English linguistics expert to testify, and she said some of the words in the texts could have different interpretations upon translation with Iranian culture taken into account. The accused had used a verb tense that suggested he was having thoughts or dreams about killing, but had no intention to do it, she testified. Khaladkar accepted this explanation.

When he testified, the accused told the court he hadn’t pushed his friend at all. He said he had placed his hand on the man’s shoulder in an attempt to console him after he lamented his family coming back to town, then slipped on the ice and they fell down the slope together.

Khaladkar said he didn’t believe that and noted the accused had not told that information to police. The judge said the accused’s behaviour after the incident — including the ‘Take back your words’ text to the victim — supported a finding of guilt.

“These are the words of someone who wants a witness to recant. They are not the words of someone who has just been in an accident,” Khaladkar said.

Further affecting the credibility of the accused, Khaladkar said, was his mention on the witness stand of having been severely beaten in the lockup after his arrest on the attempted murder charge, with guards kicking and punching him and bending his fingers back to the point of breaking one.

The student had appeared in provincial court at one point, upset and wearing a bandage on one finger, though it was more than a year after his initial arrest.

“I didn’t believe a word of it,” Khaladkar said.

All areas of the holding cells are under constant surveillance, he pointed out.

At one point in the trial, the court took the unusual step of visiting Ladies’ Lookout. Khaladkar, the accused and family members, sheriffs and reporters trekked to the cliff, where Khaladkar saw the crime scene for himself.

“Looking at the vistas that are readily discernible from this location, it is plain that no one would survive a fall and that one is likely to fall all the way to the bottom,” he said.

“I find that the accused intentionally grabbed and pushed the complainant over the edge of the precipice. I find that the accused knew, and hoped, that death would ensue."

Hall asked the judge to remand the student into custody until his sentencing hearing on Sept. 17, saying he had concerns for the man’s mental health and well-being.

Gruchy argued for him to remain in the community until the hearing, saying he has no passport and would have a hard time leaving the country given the current public health situation. He has complied with court orders since being released on bail, Gruchy said.

“I, too, am concerned for (his) mental issues and as a result, I’m ordering him to be kept in custody,” Khaladkar said. “He’ll be in a better position to be cared for.”

tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

@tara_bradbury

RELATED:

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories