Multiculturalism in a Murder Trial: First Court Appearance of Ibrahim Ali Charged with the Murder of Marrisa Shen
Curiosity drew me to the Vancouver Criminal Court on September 14, 2018, curious of who would show up at the courthouse that morning. A Syrian group, fearing the risk of becoming scapegoats for the murder of a thirteen-year-old Chinese Canadian girl, announced earlier of their intention to show solidarity with the Chinese community’s demand for justice. The Syrians had hoped to hold a candle vigil at 9:00 AM before the start of the court hearings.
Late for the 9:30 AM scheduled commencement of interim hearings in Room 101 at the Vancouver Criminal Court at 222 Main Street, I rushed pass rows of protesters, mostly Chinese, on the sidewalk next to the courthouse. They faced a phalanx of news crews who stood by their video cameras near the street edge of the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. I looked for the Syrian vigil but did not see any sign of it. There were a few pro-immigration counter-protesters. One young Asian woman held a sign that said we still welcome immigration.
When I checked in at the metal detector, a big South Asian sheriff  in dark blue uniform asked me to empty my pockets. “Everything,” he said in monotone and I pointed to the grey plastic tray. He grunted a yes. He presented himself as quite official and all business. I took out a wallet, keys, a digital camera, old Scratch & Win cards and 6/49 Lottery stubs (my mother’s), paper napkins, and pens. He asked, “Is that all?” I paused. “Everything,” he said. More paper napkins, I said something about regret not cleaning out my pockets earlier.
Once I was cleared to pass through the metal detector, another young sheriff greeted me. He asked me to spread arms apart, and he waved his wand up and down my back then both my sides and my front. The wand squeaked but the sheriff did not detain me. I was okay to stuff the paraphernalia from the tray back into my pockets and enter the hallway in search of Room 101. I had to take the elevator up one floor. Outside Room 101 on the wall next to the door, an electronic board posted a list of the cases queued for hearing. The case of Ibrahim Ali, file #252290-1, was at the very top of the list. I entered the courtroom when the old fashion, round clock with its two hands showed 9:50. I was late but nothing official was happening in the courtroom.
Fourteen visitors were already milling about in the visitors’ gallery. The courtroom looked like a university lecture hall, with the capacity to seat about 100 visitors. The colour brown dominated the courtroom. The sense of neutrality dispersed throughout, brown seats in the gallery, brown chairs and tables for the lawyers in front of the judge’s bench, which was also brown. A brown panel about three feet high surrounded the prisoner’s box, which had a brown frame that reached maybe 15 feet above the floor. Clear glass windows on two sides of the prisoner’s box faced the courtroom and the third side a solid wall and the fourth a dark door. I had never seen any prisoner’s box like it in a Canadian court before that day. It reminds me of something you might see in news footage of courtrooms from the Middle East or Europe.
The public entrance into the courtroom was located behind the top row of seats. Each row of seats descended lower like a terraced rice paddy as one walks down towards a three-tiered structure that looked like a rising terraced Mayan pyramid. At the top of this pyramid-like structure was the judge’s bench. At the very bottom behind a wooden panel were four empty seats. In the middle tier sat a court clerk and a court reporter in their black cloaks and white dickies. To my left as I faced the judge’s bench was a female court clerk and to my right was an impeccably groomed male court reporter who might easily be mistaken for a lawyer. He was busy rifling through piles of documents while talking to those around him. A couple of grey-haired white men in suits conversed with a female lawyer with long blond hair sitting at the Crown counsel’s chair at the long table in front of the judge’s bench. She reminds me of a mature hippie who exchanged her tie-dyed T-shirts for a dull dress suit.
In the visitor’s gallery sat an Asian woman in her sixties in a blue floral pattern skirt, reminiscent of a retired hippie, long black hair, wide brimmed hat and a huge bouquet of Purple Pixie bellflowers. She could hide her head and shoulders behind that bouquet if she wanted. Instead, she held the bouquet in the crook of her arms with great dignity. After a while, she moved over to the left side of the courtroom where family of the defendant were expected to be seated. I saw no sign though of any one that might give a hint that they were related to the defendant.
There are a few dark skin men in the crowd. On the left side of the courtroom, just a row or two behind the front row, one fellow in his late twenties or early thirties, with large notepad in hand, looked like he might be a reporter for one of the local Punjabi newspapers. Clean-shaven, he was a handsome man in a baby blue jacket and tieless dress shirt. He wore his brown hair as Bradley Cooper did in A Star is Born, collar length with a sweep left to right. He might very well qualify for a photo shoot for GQ Magazine.
I counted 77 visitors just before the first break, when even before any prisoner entered the courtroom. Most of the visitors were Chinese. They generally spoke mandarin, but there were the odd one or two Cantonese conversation in the crowd. Richard Lee, the former Liberal MLA, sat in the second row from the back. He was originally from Hong Kong. I suspect that he was one of the few Cantonese speakers in the visitors’ gallery. Many of the Chinese visitors, both men and women, carried a single stem white lily flower. Some of them wore the white flower pinned to their lapels.
After a short while, a man walked into the courtroom from a side entrance on the left next to the prisoner’s box. He wore a scruffy beard, dark complexion and black hair like a stereo type of an Arab in old film noir movies. Like a figure walking out of a black and white film, his grey suit, shirt and tie, all that he wore were co-ordinated in grey tones. A couple times, he turned slowly and looked at the visitors’ gallery, without any hint of emotion. He paused just long enough so that his dark eyes took in everything in the courtroom, and then slowly he turned to look at some papers or talked with the legal professionals nearby. He must be the Arabic interpreter, I thought at first. I was to discover later that I was mistaken. He was the defence lawyer.
At around 10:10 AM, the lone sheriff with boyish good looks and big forearms asked a Chinese woman in the audience to make an announcement regarding the first break. She translated in mandarin what he announced. Everyone must leave the courtroom and to return later at 10:30 AM. No Arabic interpreter was available. The court had to wait until it found a suitable Arabic interpreter. A few stragglers did not leave immediately. A couple of the Chinese visitors said, “Bi xu li kai–We must leave.” Someone else repeated, “Bi xu–It’s required.” All the visitors gathered in the hallway just outside the courtroom. Someone locked the door from inside the courtroom.
While we stood around, people spoke softly. I recognized the faces of two former mandarin news reporters/readers from the multicultural channel Omni TV. Now in the hallway, the majority of the crowd were speaking mandarin. I heard one person make a phone call in Cantonese. Two of the couples present included a white male partner or spouse. Maybe four men in the crowd were dark skin men. Their ethnicity were ambiguous. They could have been Middle Eastern, Italian, Portuguese, or may be Punjabi.
A Chinese man tried to open the door, but it would not budge. A Chinese woman, thirtyish maybe, told him in English that there was a break and visitors were not allowed in yet. The man then spoke Cantonese to another woman, presumably his wife. I took the opportunity to pose a question to the woman who first spoke English to the man. I asked her in English what is the meaning of the white flowers. She stared at me in feigned disbelief. I felt she was about ask me if I was Chinese. I interrupted her by asking her in mandarin: “Wo shi zhongguoren, hua ren, dan shi zhei bai hua shen me yi si–I am Chinese, culturally Chinese, but what do the white flowers mean?” She asked if I really did not know. She looked at me with a “you ought to know but what a shame you don’t” kind of look. On other occasions, mandarin speakers have told me that I have a decent standard mandarin accent, although longer conversations would reveal I have a limited spoken vocabulary.
This did not protect me though from her cultural chauvinism. I was not in the in-group and she deigned to instruct me on the finer points of Chinese culture. She meandered about in her little lecture, said something about remembering, something about showing support, something about expressing sadness. She said the presentation of white flowers is a custom akin to the wearing of black armbands in a western funeral. I explained to her that I understood the use of the colour white in Chinese funerals, but I had never seen before that day white flowers in a courtroom. I suspect that a scene of visitors holding single stemmed white flowers in a courtroom is also rare in China. I think the show of white flowers was a spontaneous act of unity of the new Chinese immigrant community, who spoke mostly mandarin. This woman like a few others I overheard, or later read about, said that she was not related to the victim’s family or friends. Like many of the other Chinese whom I eavesdropped on at the courthouse, she wanted to come to show support for the Shen family.
The CTV crew of three women and a young man talked among themselves in the hallway. The young man was David Molko, senior news reporter at CTV who covered the Marrisa Shen story from the very beginning when police discovered her body in Burnaby Central Park in July 2017.
Meanwhile, a young Chinese woman, notepad in hand, wandered from person to person in the crowd, asking questions. She made her way to folks near the entrance to the courtroom. A quiet angry man in his fifties or sixties stood back against the wall, next to the door, turning from time to time to peer through a narrow window into the courtroom. I do not think this man was angry at anything in particular, but simply had a look of anger but was not. I do not know his name but I refer to him as the Ironic Man. The Chinese reporter tried to get a quote from him but he showed his teeth and did not want to talk. She introduced herself as Jenny Peng of StarMetro News.
When a sheriff called us back into the courtroom at 10:30 AM, I looked around to see if former MLA Richard Lee was present. He was not. Neither was the woman with the big bouquet of purple bellflowers. All the seats in the visitors’ gallery were occupied now, about a hundred seats. Two or three visitors stood in the back. Others outside the courtroom were turned away. An extra three sheriffs joined the boyish-looking sheriff. One of the new sheriffs was Eurasian.
The Eurasian sheriff spoke in halting mandarin as he made an announcement. He asked visitors to remain quiet and to turn off cell phones. We were to wait for the arrival of the Arabic interpreter. Meanwhile, the Arabic looking man in the coordinated grey suit returned to the courtroom, carrying a folder. More Chinese filled up the seats in the left-hand side of the room, except for the first two rows. Two Indigenous women sat on the very first row in the visitors’ gallery. They casually talked with the sheriff next to them. Behind the two Indigenous women sat that fellow I thought was a reporter for a Punjabi newspaper. He appeared rather upbeat, notepad in hand, speaking somewhat animatedly with a good-looking blond woman.
The CTV crew appeared in full force in the courtroom. I suspect the older woman was the producer, the younger blond woman was a reporter and the young man, David Molko, in dark blue suit, very slim, form fitting, looked like another GQ candidate, the perfect image for the senior reporter. They talked among themselves. The younger woman at one point walked across the aisle to the female artist drawing the background scene of the courtroom.
Madam Judge Harbans Dhillon entered the courtroom and everyone stood up immediately. The lawyers bowed. The judge carried herself tall, like an Amazon myth. If the word “handsome” were to be used to describe a woman in the best sense, it would be appropriate to call Judge Dhillon handsome–beautiful and competent. She calmly dispensed the law, speaking clearly as though sharing her immediate, clear and cogent thoughts with her audience.
Provincial Court Judge Dhillon was born in Hong Kong of South Asian descent and immigrated to Canada as a child. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a BA before beginning graduate studies in anthropology and sociology, which she later dropped in order to pursue a law degree. She had a social justice bent in her mind set. She said, “Throughout law school, I was aware of the importance of law in making a change in the lives of people—women, immigrants, minorities.”
The first prisoner to appear in the prisoner’s box was a dark skin young man, with a skinhead haircut. He nonchalantly walked over to be closer to the white haired man in John Lennon glasses, his lawyer. They talked. The young prisoner smirked, the epitome of cool. This was not Ibrahim Ali. The prisoner had breached conditions of bail by failing to report to his probation officer. Other than that, he had kept the rest of his bail conditions.
Judge Dhillon summarized the defence lawyer’s arguments. The young prisoner was doing fine, busy with work and had appeared on time for an earlier hearing. His busy, productive schedule hampered his fulfilling the condition of bail that requires monthly visits with a probation officer. His lawyer, the epitome of the sage lawyer, asked that his client be granted permission to report by telephone to his probation officer. The judge granted the request but not before explaining the original bail conditions. She emphasized how important it was that he continue to report to a probation officer. She further affirmed the original court order that required him to stay away from two of his former female friends. One was surnamed Garcia and the other Yang.
The second prisoner appeared on a video conference from prison. He wore an orange prison jumpsuit, and appeared as if a drunken George Carlin, beard and hair all dishevelled. The judge asked that he must show up physically in court at some point in his trial. The prisoner promised that he would.
At about 11:30 AM, the Arabic interpreter arrived, not in a suit, but in a light bluish grey bomber jacket and blue jeans–no tie. Soon, the door opened into the prisoner’s box and a young man in powder-pink, loose fitting T-shirt walked into the glass-enclosed prisoner’s box. He clutched his hands behind his back. His black hair and beard both much disheveled, and his face looked tired as though waking out of a drunken stupor. He reminds me of a college student with a big hangover who does not register the gravity of his surroundings. The interpreter leaned against the glass window and spoke to the young prisoner. He translated the comments made by the judge and the lawyers. The Crown counsel was another tall, Amazon-like woman in dark pants suit and crisp, white blouse. She stood at the right side of the judge’s bench and read aloud a prepared statement from a document.
The defence lawyer was Daniel Markovitz. He appeared the most tired of anyone in today’s proceedings except for Ibrahim Ali or perhaps the prisoner in that last video conference. Mr. Markovitz asked that the proceedings be delayed in order for him to get up to speed on the file. He had just received the file from the Crown and had not yet read it. The lawyers and the judge agreed that the next hearing be held on October 12, 2018 at 9:30 AM. Everything the case of the prisoner Ibrahim Ali was finished in maybe five minutes. The visitors were offered the opportunity to leave as the next case was being prepared to appear before the judge.
Later research revealed that the Law Society of British Columbia had fined the defence lawyer Daniel (Danny) Markovitz for conduct unbecoming of a lawyer in behaviour that breached the Criminal Code regarding refusal to provide a breath sample and professional misconduct. The Law Society of BC’s hearing panel recognized that his misbehaviour stemmed from alcohol abuse, but that it did not affect his performance as a lawyer.
On my way out, I spotted the StarMetro reporter interviewing intensely the Ironic Man. When I exited the building, a crowd still mingled about the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. Some still held signs protesting bad immigration policies and demands for more security. The CTV crew was back outside too, and the senior news reporter stared at his hand device, likely reviewing his notes.
When the defence lawyer appeared at the doorway in front of the court building, two reporters rushed down some stairs to ask him questions. I overheard a reporter saying Mr. Markovitz did not yet know anything of the case and therefore could not comment at this time. Someone said he was polite. I discovered that indeed he was not showy and not arrogant. When asked to repeat his name, he quickly spelled out M-A-R-K-O-W-I-T-Z. When his name was mispronounced, he was not agitated at all. He repeated the name and walked briskly toward a vehicle on Main Street.
The crowd had shrunk to about half the size of the earlier crowd. The news crews were packing up and chewing the cud. As I walked along, I caught sight of a familiar face but at the time could not put a finger on who she was. This middle-aged woman, reminded me of a Sarah Palin but with straight, long blond hair. She was friendly to everyone and reiterated in different permutations something about supporting the Chinese community and about vetting refugees more vigorously. She made it clear that she was no fan of Justin Trudeau. She seemed very gregarious and spoke to several people at once. I recalled later that she was Laura-Lynne Tyler Thompson, a former host of the Christian TV program The 700 Club Canada.
The Ironic Man appeared out of the corner of my eye as he zoomed in on her. “I know who you are,” he announced at one point. They debated the pros and cons of immigration. He claimed that the government do vigorously vet Syrian immigrants and that most people do not know how rigorous the immigration process is. Ms. Thompson’s claim that Trudeau does not do enough vetting is not true, he said. He would know since he claimed to be an immigration consultant from the US. He was also Syrian. He happened to be visiting Vancouver when he heard about the court appearance of the Syrian refugee accused of murder. He felt the crowd both outside and inside the courtroom were a lynch mob out for revenge. He sounded quite passionate about the immigration issue. If there were DNA proof that this Syrian suspect murdered the thirteen-year-old girl, he himself would execute the murderer, he said. He made a throat slicing motion with his fingers. Until there is proof, we should not rush to judgment.
I agree with Ironic Man’s call for rationality. (I did not ask for his name.) We must catch and try the actual murderer. Anything less is not justice. A rush to judgment based on any excuse is simply not right.
What drew me to the courthouse that Friday morning was a curiosity not so much of the case itself, since its details would be revealed during the course of the trial, but I wondered who would show up for a murder trial. People showing up at the courthouse for the preliminary hearing of alleged murderer Ibrahim Ali included a defence lawyer who was once fined by the Law Society of BC for misbehaviour resulting from alcohol abuse, a Crown counsel of Amazon stature and a judge with social justice inclination. Then there were folks from two ethnic minorities in racial tension: mandarin speaking Chinese immigrants seeking justice for a murdered girl and Syrian refugees seeking fairness in a case in which the Crown charged one of their own for murder. Throw in a born-again Christian TV personality who held a hard line against immigration. The characters could have been the cast for a made-for-TV court drama. I suspect though the trial is going to be anything but predictable.
Updated on October 11, 2018: Spelling of surname “Markowitz” revised to “Markovitz” as recorded on his profile page at the Law Society of BC web site.
The sentence “When asked to repeat his name, he quickly spelled out M-A-R-K-O-W-I-T-Z.” is replaced by “When asked to repeat his name, he quickly spelled it out.”
 I believe most of the security personnel in dark blue uniforms that I saw at the courthouse were deputy sheriffs. For sake of brevity, I simply use the word “sheriff” to describe them.