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Accident or choice? Crown, defence paint drastically different pictures of cop death


Defence lawyers painted the death of a Toronto police officer who was crushed by a vehicle as a tragic accident caused by panic and confusion Wednesday as prosecutors argued it was the result of a series of choices made in a matter of moments.

Two drastically different narratives of the events that led to the death of Const. Jeffrey Northrup were laid out in a packed Toronto courtroom as the Crown and defence made their opening statements in the murder trial of Umar Zameer.

Zameer has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

Northrup, 55, died on July 2, 2021, after being struck by a vehicle as he was responding to a report of a stabbing in the area of Toronto City Hall. He was a 31-year veteran of the Toronto police force.

"The evidence will show that this was not a murder, that this was not a criminal act. It was a horrific, tragic accident – but not a crime," defence lawyer Nader Hasan said in his opening statement to the jury.

Court heard Zameer, his wife Aaida Shaikh – who was eight months pregnant at the time – and their two-year-old son had come downtown from their home in Vaughan, Ont., to do some Canada Day sightseeing that evening. They arrived around 10:30 p.m., and while they were walking around, they briefly crossed paths with a man who had been stabbed, but were in no way involved in that incident, court heard.

The family returned to the underground garage around midnight as police arrived to investigate the stabbing, court heard.

Hasan said his client didn't know that Northrup and his partner, who were in plainclothes, were police officers. Zameer and his wife thought they were being ambushed by criminals when the officers rushed towards them in the deserted underground parking lot, the defence lawyer said.

The encounter happened roughly a month after a man killed four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., and Shaikh wears a headscarf, prompting them to fear the worst, he said.

When the officers became "aggressive," the couple got scared, Hasan said. Their son was crying in the backseat, he said.

"They could not comprehend why these two people would be banging on their car door and asking them to stop in an empty parking lot late at night. There was no reason to – Mr. Zameer and his family had done nothing wrong," he said.

Panicked and set on protecting his family, Zameer tried to escape, his lawyer said. He initially drove forward but his path was suddenly blocked by an unmarked police van, so he reversed into the laneway and then drove forward from there, Hasan said.

He did not realize Northrup had been knocked to the ground in the path of his car, the lawyer said, adding Zameer had tried to leave in a way that avoided a collision.

"Ask yourselves whether it makes sense that this young man, an accountant and family man, who has never been in trouble before, decided to all of a sudden kill a police officer while with his pregnant wife and toddler," Hasan urged the jury at the end of his address.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, told jurors Zameer chose to make a series of manoeuvres with his car while plainclothes police officers were close by, hitting Northrup and crushing the officer's body under the vehicle.

"The issue in this case is not who caused officer Northrup's death or what he died from. The issue in this case is why Mr. Zameer chose to make a series of manoeuvres, driving his vehicle in close proximity of two people who were also police officers," Crown attorney Michael Cantlon said in his opening remarks.

"The issue is also whether Mr. Zameer knew or was willfully blind that Officer Northrup was a police officer acting in the execution of his duties.

Less than 20 seconds passed between the car's first movement forward to Northrup's death, court heard.

Security video from inside the garage is limited and does not capture the initial interaction between the officers and Zameer, nor does it show all of the car's movements or Northrup's position, Cantlon said. Jurors watched the footage Wednesday afternoon.

Prosecutors allege the officers identified themselves as police more than once as they approached Zameer. Both wore their badges around their necks, though Northrup's cannot be seen in security video from above ground, Cantlon said.

Zameer's wife is expected to testify that she saw a police badge but thought it was fake, the prosecutor said. She believed they hit a speed bump as they drove away, but in fact, Northrup was left to die on the parking lot floor, the Crown said.

A police collision reconstructionist is expected to tell the court the collision was avoidable, and there were acceleration marks on the asphalt, prosecutors said. Cantlon noted the garage was well lit and had no speed bumps.

Northrup was six feet three inches tall and weighed 299 pounds, Cantlon said, describing the officer as "barrel-chested." The officer rolled under the vehicle and was caught there over more than six metres, he said.

He was left "broken and bruised almost from head to toe," with several broken ribs, a fractured spine, and a lacerated liver, the prosecutor said.

Northrup's partner, Det. Const. Lisa Forbes, is set to testify Thursday. The trial is expected to last until mid-April. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2024. Top Stories

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