Alberta’s top court has overturned two first-degree murder convictions in a high-profile case involving the torture and killing of a man and the deaths of three others.
In a decision released Friday, the Alberta Court of Appeal said the judge in the trial of Tewodros Kebede and Yu Chieh Liao gave the jury misleading instructions about whether the killing of Hanock Afowerk was planned and deliberate.
Afowerk’s body was found in a ditch outside Calgary in July 2017. He had been bound, beaten, strangled and shot.
Three other bodies were found in Afowerk’s burnt-out car at a suburban construction site. No murder charges have been laid in those deaths.
Court heard that Afowerk’s death was the culmination of a plot to kidnap him and extort him for money. The jury agreed with the Crown that Afowerk’s killing had been part of the plan from the start.
But the Appeal Court said the trial judge failed to explain that while the kidnapping and beating had clearly been planned, Afowerk’s killing may not have been.
The court pointed out a text message sent by Kebede before the killing, which read: “U up for the job tonight?”
That text was one of the chief pieces of evidence the Crown relied on to prove Afowerk’s killing was planned and deliberate. It was repeated as part of the trial judge’s charge to the jury.
But the recipient of that message did not testify at the trial. The Appeal Court said that left Kebede’s meaning unclear.
“It is as reasonable to infer that (the recipient) was being recruited only to kidnap, confine and extort, as it is to infer that he was being recruited to kidnap, confine, extort and kill,” said the judgment.
The court has given prosecutors the choice of substituting verdicts of second-degree murder or beginning a new first-degree murder trial for the defendants.
The successful appeal does not affect Kebede’s and Liao’s convictions involving the deaths of the other three victims.
Liao was found guilty of being an accessory in the murders of Cody Pfeiffer, Glynnis Fox and Tiffany Ear, whose remains were found in Afowerk’s charred car.
Kebede was convicted of being an accessory in Pfeiffer’s murder.