July 13, 2010
William Imona-Russel, 32, was convicted of first-degree murder Tuesday.
William Imona-Russel was in the witness box for about an hour before he confessed to killing Yasmin Ashareh.
A few days before her death in July 2006, the 20-year-old woman had rented the bedroom across the hall from him in a northwest Toronto townhouse.
“I snapped. I picked up the scissors and struck her,” he told an Ontario Superior Court jury on April 27. “It happened really so fast. It was something I couldn’t believe myself.”
That confession ended four years of Imona-Russel doggedly trying to prove he did not rape and stab Ashareh. At the same time he was also denying he had twice raped a former lover, once while holding a power drill to her head.
“I’m confident to say I am innocent. I did not commit any crime,” the now 36-year-old man told court on the eve of his first-degree murder trial a year ago.
For Imona-Russel, that just completed trial — the jury, which began hearing evidence in February, convicted him of first-degree murder Tuesday — was part of an epic voyage through the immigration and judicial systems.
Fighting to clear his name of murder, he hired and fired a succession of lawyers, until Ontario legal aid officials said they would not fund any new lawyers due to his “total inability to work with defence counsel for any meaningful period of time.”
He filed copious complaints, appealed numerous court decisions — twice to the Supreme Court of Canada — and sought countless adjournments. He spawned a legal cottage industry with a revolving cast of lawyers who argued, among other things, about what and how much lawyers should be paid for their role in his case. Some have compared Imona-Russel to Richard Wills, the former Toronto police officer convicted of murdering his mistress after manipulating the system so that taxpayers paid $1.3 million for his defence.
From the perspective of the Crown, police and the family of the woman he killed, the case has been a travesty and his legal maneuverings a blatant attempt to postpone judgment day.
Compounding the bitterness for the family of Ashareh is the fact Imona-Russel was not only in Canada when he shouldn’t have been but at the time of her slaying he was out on bail for the rape of his one-time lover.
“He took advantage of an immigration and justice system that seems geared to actually work for the criminal,” Ashareh’s uncle, Issa Muse, said recently outside the courtroom.
“This man has misused the generosity of the Canadian public.”
Born Aug. 15, 1973 in Lagos, Nigeria, Imona-Russel presented a falsified passport when the then 29-year-old arrived in Toronto on April 16, 2003. The document had numerous visa stamps from trips to Canada and the United States but no one was fooled because his photograph didn’t fit in the allotted space.
He immediately sought refugee status and moved into an apartment at 263 Dixon Rd. where he shared a one-bedroom apartment with two men. It is believed he had two cousins living in the building.
As part of the screening process for his refugee application, Imona-Russel was tested and by summer he was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He began receiving treatment and counselling at Sunnybrook hospital and was told not to engage in sexual relations without first informing a partner of his medical status.
People who met him in 2003 recall him saying he came to Canada for a better life and to work as a stockbroker. With dark-black skin and a stocky build, he spoke with a refined, British-sounding accent and boasted of having a university degree in business administration and economics, although that has never been proven. He claimed he was a prince back home.
It was at the Etobicoke highrise where he met and started having sex with a retired flight attendant in her 50s. She had battled severe depression but was unaware of his HIV diagnosis. The relationship did not last long because he was too controlling and was becoming violent, she would later testify. They continued to have sex sporadically, however.
From September 2003 to the following March, he worked at Multi-Industries as a general labourer. That was his only paying job in Canada. By the spring of 2004, his refugee claim was rejected and a deportation order issued. But he then asked to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
In June 2004, Imona-Russel moved out of the apartment and rented a bedroom in Unit 77 of a townhouse complex at 246 John Garland Blvd. in north Etobicoke. By July, he was receiving $900 a month in disability benefits — not because of the HIV but because he had injured his hand back in Nigeria and was unable to work.
While it is unclear if he had any other sources of income, he had enough money to pay his $400 rent, drink beer, frequent karaoke bars, rent DVDs, and occasionally order Chinese food.
In March 2005, he returned twice to the apartment on Dixon Rd. where his former girlfriend lived. On the first occasion, he pushed, slapped and kicked her, stood on her chest, threw her on the bed and threatened to kill her with a power drill before having forced intercourse. He returned a week later and raped her again. This time she went to police who urged her to get tested for HIV. She was infected.
Toronto police arrested him and the Crown sought his detention, according to transcripts of the bail hearing. He was described as having “no status” in Canada because his refugee claim had been denied. Nonetheless, a justice of the peace released him on March 29. A spokeswoman for Canada Border Services said a deportation order is not an enforceable removal order. As well, immigration matters take a “back seat” to criminal proceedings, she said.
He was rearrested in September for breaching his bail conditions by communicating with the complainant. On Nov. 9, he pleaded guilty to breach of recognizance and was sentenced to five days in jail. He was then let out on $1,000 bail after his lawyer argued he was receiving “insufficient medical treatment, exercise and rest hazardous to his health.”
Imona-Russel returned to John Garland Blvd.
The following summer, Ashareh, an independent-minded young woman who had been born in Canada to Somali immigrants, left her family’s four-bedroom home in Mississauga and moved across the hall from Imona-Russel. Two other men lived in Unit 77: one had been convicted of possessing child pornography; the other had domestic assault convictions. Ashareh, who had taken a part-time cashier job at a nearby Food Basic, had been accepted into the social work program at Sheridan College.
Her exact move-in date is uncertain but police believe it was around July 2.
Sitting in the witness box wearing a blue button-down shirt, black jacket and rectangular, wire-rimmed glasses, Imona-Russel said it was early on July 9 that he and Ashareh had consensual sex but that it took a tragic turn when she made fun of his prowess. “She looked into my eyes and said I didn’t perform,” he told jurors.
He exploded in anger and blamed his intoxicated state for what came next. He reached across her and grabbed a pair of scissors, stabbing her six times in the neck and three on the left side of her body. He left the scissors embedded in her right up to the handle.
Then he tied her body up with a telephone cord, double-bagged her body in garbage bags and packed her inside a large canvas sports bag. In the dead of night, he dragged the bag downstairs and left it in a nearby alleyway, telling court in April he wanted it to be found. He also cleaned up the crime scene and disposed of her clothes and the bloody bedding, then dumped the mattress at a small construction site in the complex.
Crown attorney David Fisher would tell jurors Imona-Russel’s story of a budding romance was an outrageous fabrication.
On July 14, after neighbours complained about the smell, a garbage collector discovered the sports bag containing Ashareh’s decomposing remains. A day later, Imona-Russel gave a videotaped statement to police in which he claimed he had only ever seen the young woman renting a room across the hall twice and didn’t know her name — in stark contrast to his trial testimony.
After his arrest July 28, Imona-Russel continued to deny all knowledge of the crime or that he even knew Ashareh. The jury was not told about those two statements because Justice Maureen Forestell excluded them after hearing arguments on their admissibility.
Back in custody, Imona-Russel retained a lawyer through Ontario Legal Aid. It would be the first of many. When the preliminary hearing began in the summer of 2007, he was on his third lawyer and asking for repeated adjournments to hire other counsel. By the time the hearing concluded, he was representing himself.
As his trial on the aggravated sexual assault approached, and after the legal aid plan decided not to fund any new lawyers, a decision was made to appoint two “friends of the court” because of his fractious history with lawyers.
Defence lawyer Ferhan Javed was appointed as an amicus curiae to assist the court in the sexual assault case where Imona-Russel was representing himself.
A judge also appointed defence lawyer Anthony Moustacalis as an amicus curiae on the murder charge. Imona-Russel then applied to the court to order state-funded counsel.
At a hearing on Dec. 9, 2008, seven lawyers — three Crown attorneys, three defence lawyers and a lawyer representing Legal Aid Ontario — gathered to argue his request in front of Justice Ian Nordheimer.
Imona-Russel had “on five occasions (arguably six) been given counsel of his choice and he has chosen to squander those opportunities,” Nordheimer wrote in his ruling rejecting the request.
One of the lawyers, Victoria Tucci, applied to be removed as counsel. Her health had been “negatively impacted,” she said in her application. “Under no circumstances can counsel have any further contact with Imona-Russel.”
While an inmate like Imona-Russel is rare, defence lawyers worry such stories create a false impression of widespread abuse within the cash-strapped legal aid system.
Nonetheless, he has presented a huge challenge to the justice system as acknowledged by Nordheimer in his December 2008 ruling where he referred to “notorious instances of abuses of the legal aid system.
“The court must play its role in ensuring that indigent accused are not permitted to manipulate the legal aid system or to play fast and loose with its rules and then attempt to shelter from the consequences of their actions under a façade of fair trial rights,” the judge said.
In January 2009, the trial began in the alleged rapes of his former girlfriend in 2005.
“I was terrified . . . for my life,” the woman testified via closed-circuit television. “He took the (power) drill and he pointed it to my temples and he said, ‘I am going to kill you.’ He said that nobody can help me.” He had also siphoned $9,000 from her bank account, she said.
The divorced mother of two adult children asked him if he had any kind of disease. “He said no, he’s healthy,” the woman told court.
In February 2009, Justice John McMahon convicted Imona-Russel of numerous charges including assault with a weapon, threatening death and two counts of sexual assault relating to the March 2005 incidents. While the former flight attendant had tested positive for HIV, McMahon found no absolute proof he had infected the woman.
“It is very soon that you will be hearing from the court of appeal,” Imona-Russel told the court, adding it was a “wrongful conviction.”
When it came time for sentencing last summer, Imona-Russel asked for an adjournment. McMahon denied his request.
Javed, who had served as amicus during the trial, will say little about representing Imona-Russel. He describes it as a “challenging brief” made easier by McMahon being “patient, courteous and fair. I don’t recall him never allowing him (Imona-Russel) to speak or cutting him off. Not once.”
Not even when Imona-Russel rose to object.
“Your honour, sorry, sorry, to correct you,” he said on one occasion, leaning forward with his fingertips pressed on the ledge of the prisoner’s box.
On Sept. 9, 2009, McMahon sentenced Imona-Russel to nine years in prison, but gave him credit for five years and 15 days of pre-trial custody. He did not grant him the three-for-one credit he had sought, noting he had falsely claimed he had spent time in segregation because he had been assaulted by another inmate. It was Imona-Russel himself who had made the request to be separated from the general population, McMahon stated.
Four days after his sentencing, and true to his word, Imona-Russel filed an inmate appeal of both the conviction and sentence. In his own handwriting, he wrote: “Verdict was unreasonable.” He also claimed the sentence was “unduly harsh, improper and demonstrably unfit.” The jury hearing evidence in the Ashareh murder case were not told of Imona-Russel’s aggravated assault convictions, just that he had been convicted of assaulting a jail guard and failing to comply with a bail condition. He made repeated requests, through his lawyers, to the judge to remind jurors not to conduct Internet searches.
By then, pre-trial motions in the murder trial were well underway — they had begun June 8, 2009.
Since he was not represented by counsel, Justice Maureen Forestell expanded the amicus role, allowing defence lawyers to cross-examine, raise objections and take instructions on behalf of Imona-Russel.
She also approved funding increases so that amicus curiae Anthony Moustacalis could bill $192 an hour, almost $100 more than the top legal aid rate at the time. She also approved funding for a junior lawyer, Monte MacGregor, at $110 an hour, removed Legal Aid Ontario as the manager of the budget of amicus curiae and appointed a private lawyer (John Rosen) — at $192 an hour — to manage the budget and accounts of amicus.
Then, in the midst of hearing stomach-turning forensic evidence in April, jurors were asked to stay home while lawyers for the attorney general and defence counsel argued — both in front of Forestell and the Ontario Court of Appeal — about the funding dilemma. Moustacalis told court in the meantime he wasn’t being paid and had been forced to use his credit card to pay for the defence.
Lawyers for the attorney general are appealing Forestell’s ruling saying she erred both by removing Legal Aid Ontario as the manager of the budget and also for authorizing private counsel to determine the number of hours required for amicus to discharge his obligations to the court.
While the trial was expected to last two to three months, things became increasingly acrimonious as it lurched to its conclusion.
At one point in mid-June, after Moustacalis voiced Imona-Russel’s concern about “the toll” the protracted proceedings were taking on him, homicide Det. Sgt. Wayne Banks couldn’t hold it in any longer. “I wonder how Yasmin felt when she was being stabbed nine times. I think we’ve lost perspective here.” By then Forestell had left the courtroom.
Defence lawyer David Butt, who had nothing to do with the murder case but represented the victim during Imona-Russel’s sexual assault trial, observed “some of this hair-pulling delay is frustrating for everybody and is tied to the fact that even the most problematic client has to be given a fair trial.”
The example of Imona-Russel also “demonstrates how defence counsel, in the vast majority of cases, properly represent their client and also properly discharge their . . . duty in a way that enhances the administration of justice.”
He suggested justice officials might want to assess how to prevent similar problems arising in the future without compromising trial fairness.
“It can always be a helpful exercise to sit down after an event like this and say ‘how can we do better the next time?’ ”
Excerpts from a July 28, 2006 videotaped interview with William Imona-Russel after homicide Det. Sgt. Wayne Banks and Det. Tim Bates arrested him:
BANKS:This will be a chance for you, if you chose to do so, to tell us your side of the story about what happened.
IMONA-RUSSEL: The only side of the story I would have told you is the story in which I can’t tell because I did not know exactly what it was that happened.
BANKS:What do you mean, William?
IMONA-RUSSEL: No, what I’m saying is I would have loved, very much loved to tell you the story about this person you just . . . just mentioned if I had to, but unfortunately I don’t have the story to tell.
BANKS:Did you ever have any type of sexual relations with her?
BANKS:If I was to tell you that we have recovered some DNA that shows your semen on her body or inside her body, what would you say to that?
IMONA-RUSSEL: I don’t know. I don’t know. The reason I say I don’t known is there’s . . . that would be. . . That would be surprising because I. . . I had no relations with her.
BANKS:You had no relations with her.
BANKS:How. . . Can you tell me then how would your semen with your DNA get on her?
IMONA-RUSSEL: I don’t know. I don’t know.
BANKS:Has she ever been in your bedroom?
IMONA-RUSSEL: My bedroom?
BANKS:Did you kill her, sir?
IMONA-RUSSEL: No, sir, I didn’t. I didn’t.
BANKS:Did you dispose of her body?
IMONA-RUSSEL: No, sir.
BANKS:Did you help anybody dispose of her body?
BANKS:Did you help anybody kill her?
IMONA-RUSSEL: No, sir. I didn’t.
BANKS:You know nothing about this at all?
IMONA-RUSSEL: Like I said, that building doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to a man that has had thousands of tenants live there. And many of them they leave clothings (sic), they leave the place untidy, they leave so many things so which could be damaging . . . damaging and implicating to other people that are presently living there.
BANKS:You said you’ve never been with her by yourself. She has never been in her — your room.
BANKS:Yet somehow your DNA ends up on this poor girl.
IMONA-RUSSEL: I don’t know, sir. I don’t know anything.