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Lawyers make final pitches to jury in trial of man accused of killing Toronto cop

TORONTO — A man accused of fatally running over a Toronto police officer did not intend to kill anyone and behaved reasonably in the face of what he thought was an imminent threat to his family, defence lawyers said Wednesday, while prosecutors argue

Umar Zameer, left to right, defence lawyers Alexandra Heine, Nader Hasan, Crown attorney Karen Simone are shown in this courtroom sketch as Justice Anne Molloy and jury members look on in Toronto on Thursday, March 21, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alexandra Newbould

TORONTO — A man accused of fatally running over a Toronto police officer did not intend to kill anyone and behaved reasonably in the face of what he thought was an imminent threat to his family, defence lawyers said Wednesday, while prosecutors argued he deliberately chose to drive dangerously.

The two sides made their final pitches to jurors at the trial of Umar Zameer -- who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Det. Const. Jeffrey Northrup --  with lawyers presenting drastically different theories of what happened that night, and the defence accusing the Crown’s key police witnesses of lying.

Jurors will now listen to instructions from the judge presiding over the case, who began delivering her charge Wednesday evening with plans to continue Thursday.

Northrup, 55, died on July 2, 2021, after he was hit by a vehicle in an underground parking garage at Toronto City Hall. The officer and his partner – who were in plain clothes – had been investigating a stabbing, which Zameer was not involved in.

Zameer did not know that the people who rushed towards his car after midnight in an underground parking garage were officers and tried to escape the situation "in the safest way possible," defence lawyer Nader Hasan said in his closing submissions.

He also did not know Northrup had fallen to the ground and could not see him in front of his vehicle because the officer was in the car's blind zone, Hasan said.

"We all agree that this was a tragedy. It was not a criminal act," the defence lawyer said.

"I urge you not to compound tragedy with injustice," he continued. "Mr. Zameer is not a criminal. He's a husband, a father who was trying to escape what he thought was imminent danger. ... 'Not guilty' is the only just verdict here."

Hasan said Zameer's account is corroborated by, among other things, security footage, physical evidence and the testimony of two crash reconstruction experts, one of whom testified for the Crown.

On the other hand, the Crown's key witnesses – three officers who saw the incident – lied repeatedly and colluded with each other, the defence lawyer argued. 

The prosecution does not have a case for murder unless jurors believe the three officers and "disregard the evidence of pretty much everyone else," he said.

Hasan also argued the Crown could not address the "elephant in the room," one of the central questions of the case. 

"Why would Mr. Zameer, an accountant in his 30s, a family man who's never been in trouble before, who was out with his young family to celebrate Canada Day – why would he all of a sudden intend to kill or cause harm to a police officer? To say nothing of the fact that he's out in his car with his eight-months-pregnant wife and his two-year-old," he said.

The Crown argued that while the three officers were mistaken about where Northrup was when he was struck, they were correct that he was standing and that Zameer drove directly at him. Rather than in the laneway, as the officers remembered and where it would have been captured on security footage, it happened outside of the camera's view,  the Crown suggested.

Prosecutor Karen Simone argued the officers had nothing to gain from lying and each had different vantage points of the incident. They conflated the spot where Northrup was hit and where he was ultimately run over, which appears in the video, she said.

Northrup's partner, Det. Const. Lisa Forbes, testified that both of them identified themselves as police officers during their interaction with Zameer, and Zameer's wife testified she saw Forbes with a badge but thought it was fake, Simone said. 

At more than six feet tall and nearly 300 pounds, Northrup was "huge and visible," and anyone who hit someone that size would be able to see and feel it, she said, arguing Zameer "knew that he was driving over a person."

If jurors are not convinced Zameer knew Northrup was a police officer and that the impact happened while Northrup was standing directly in front of the vehicle, they should acquit him of first-degree murder, Simone said. In that case, she said the jury should then find him guilty of manslaughter through dangerous driving.

"He made a series of compounding choices, individually and collectively, that were a marked departure from the standard of care that a reasonable person would have observed in his situation. Ultimately, his collective and deliberate choices proved to have fatal consequences and they were objectively foreseeable," she said.

While Zameer was within his rights to leave, he chose to drive dangerously knowing there were people nearby, she added. Even if jurors believe Zameer was scared, "it still was a perceived and not rational threat -- no weapons, no actual threats," and his response was disproportionate, she said. He also did not stop after running over Northrup, she said.

Court has heard Zameer's car initially drove forward from his parking spot but was blocked by an unmarked police van. He then reversed and angled his car, stopped, and drove straight down the laneway towards the exit.

Zameer has testified he didn't know Northrup and his partner – who were in plain clothes – were police officers and he got scared when two strangers rushed towards his car in the largely empty parking lot shortly after midnight. He said he locked the doors and the two people started banging on the car.

He told the court he was trying to drive away quickly to save his family from what he believed to be robbers and he didn't see anything in front of his car or realize he had hit anyone until after his arrest. Both he and his wife testified they thought they had gone over a speed bump.

Three police officers who witnessed the incident  -- Forbes and two officers who were in the van -- testified Northrup was standing in the middle of the laneway in front of the car with his hands outstretched when he was run over. The two in the van, constables Antonio Correa and Scharnil Pais, said Northrup fell on the hood and then slid off.

However, two crash reconstruction experts, one of them called by the Crown, told the court they concluded Northrup was knocked down after the car brushed against him while reversing, and was already on the ground when he was run over by it moving forward.

The expert called by the defence said Northrup would not have been visible to Zameer when he was on the ground because he was in the car's blind zone. He also noted there was no damage to the hood or front of the car, which he would expect to see if a man of Northrup's stature had been hit head-on.

Court has also seen security footage of the parking garage that shows an unidentified object believed to be Northrup appear on the ground in front of the car as it drives forward in the laneway. Northrup cannot be seen at any other point in the video.

A pillar partially blocks the camera's view on the left, hiding some of the earlier portions of the encounter, but there is a clear shot of the laneway.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2024.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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