The voicemail threatens to knock lawyer Kevin McCullough’s teeth out, and as for his client, Ibrahim Ali, the anonymous caller says: “I’m gonna cut him.”
The Dec 1. recording was provided to The Canadian Press by Ali’s lawyers, who say it is among a litany of threats they have received for their handling of the high-profile murder case.
Ali was convicted on Dec. 8 of first-degree murder for the killing of a 13-year-old girl in a B.C. park, and while the trial may be over, the fallout for McCullough and co-counsel Ben Lynskey continues.
They are afraid, amid allegations that someone brought a loaded gun to the last day of the trial.
“I am fearful for my safety, the safety of my co-counsel, Mr. Lynskey, and the safety of Mr. Ali at all court appearances,” McCullough said last week.
In the closing days of the trial, McCullough filed an affidavit describing more than a dozen messages sent to the lawyer, some with graphically violent threats.
“I just want the truth to come out in all respects,” McCullough added in a second interview.
The threats have prompted calls from some defence lawyers and their associations for more safety measures, and suggestions that critics are overlooking important points about how justice is administered.
- Vancouver police arrest man after claim of gun in Ibrahim Ali murder trial courtroom
- B.C. jury finds Ibrahim Ali guilty of 1st-degree murder in girl’s death
Richard Fowler, director of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, said he was stunned by an apparent lack of response to the threats, after McCullough had asked for better security in court.
“I can’t imagine anything more upsetting to any lawyer than death threats, and then to learn there’s a possibility that a loaded firearm was brought into the courtroom is just absolutely scandalous,” he said.
“It’s outrageous that it was allowed to happen … It shouldn’t have happened and it can’t be allowed to happen again.”
Rebecca McConchie is second vice-president of the Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia.
“If there’s problems of conduct, that can be dealt with through the proper route, and threats are not the proper route,” she said.
“Threats to defence counsel are really threats to the integrity of that adversarial system that we rely on to say that trials are a good way to achieve justice. If we don’t have defence counsel, we don’t have a justice system that has integrity.”
She said she cannot comment on case specifics as she did not attend the trial.
Much of the vitriol, both in online forums and directly sent to McCullough and his team, stems from his closing arguments, where he said it wasn’t “outlandish” to suggest the 13-year-old girl may have found Ali, who was 27 at the time of the killing, attractive.
Prosecutors said the girl, who can’t be named because of a publication ban, was sexually assaulted and strangled in a Burnaby park in 2017, and that semen found inside her body matched Ali’s DNA.
The girl’s brother accused Ali’s lawyers of dragging his sister’s “name through the mud” and read out a statement last week saying the family would be filing formal complaints “to see them disbarred.”
But Fowler said that although he did not attend the trial, it was clear that much of the public discourse around defence conduct is missing an important point.
“The best defenders of the administration of justice in that context are the judge and the Crown, neither of whom raised concerns about Mr. McCullough’s closing,” Fowler said.
“They were both present and they both play an important role in ensuring that nobody in the courtroom conducts themselves in a way that brings the administration of justice into disrepute.”
In a statement issued last week, the Law Society of British Columbia said it was aware of the “serious threats” related to the trial.
“Lawyers must not be identified with their clients or their clients’ conduct as a result of doing their job,” it said.
“The safety of lawyers and of all legal professionals, both inside and outside of court, should be taken very seriously.”
Among the threats described in McCullough’s affidavit was one he previously read in court without the jury present earlier this month.
“You think 13-year-old rape and murder victims are to blame. Your family will suffer before you meet a violent and brutal death. It will happen before Christmas. The last thing you will know is that your family suffers like the child suffered. I am suicidal due to childhood predators and looking for someone to cause pain to before I burn myself alive,” the comment said.
Vancouver Police confirmed last week that they had made an arrest in relation to allegations that a weapon was brought to the last day of the trial.
McCullough told The Canadian Press that Victoria Police told him of the incident two days later, saying someone brought a loaded Glock gun into court with an “intent to kill.”
“I’m very worried about our society,” McCullough said. “It’s a sad day when defence counsel or people who are being zealously represented, and somehow that turns into a society where they want defence counsel to be hurt, killed, intimidated and threatened.”
The sentiment was echoed by some defence lawyers online after the gun allegation was reported.
“The number of people commenting here that think it’s perfectly acceptable to shoot a defence lawyer dead for doing his job is horrifying. Welcome to my world,” lawyer Alison Craig said on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
Fowler, who is also the director of the BC Association of Legal Aid Lawyers, said the threats against the defence team were unacceptable.
“The justice system cannot operate fairly, cannot function properly, if people intimidate justice system participants,” he said.
“Just because something is profoundly dreadful to hear in the context of a murder case does not mean that somebody has professionally misconducted themselves — not in the slightest.”
Fowler said it was up to defence lawyers to challenge evidence and attempt to undermine it.
“The test for whether a lawyer has crossed the line is not whether (that) is unsettling, disgusting or profoundly challenging to hear,” he said.
McConchie said the threats have renewed calls for more safety precautions, especially in high-profile cases.
“The safety and security of people who attend court can’t depend on the role they play within the justice system. All justice system participants need to feel and be safe in a courthouse,” she said.
McCullough said he and Lynskey met with the BC Sheriff Service on Dec. 7 — the day before the alleged gun incident — and sought security measures, including that a metal detector be used. He said they were told any decision would be made by the judge but that was not implemented.
In court on Dec. 8, he asked Justice Lance Bernard if the proceedings could be moved to a secure courtroom in light of what he said was a “litany of death threats.”
But Bernard said he didn’t know if another courtroom was available and the move didn’t take place.
The allegation that a gun was present in the courtroom that day came later, and hearings last week were moved to courtroom 67, which is fitted with a metal detector.
In a notice of appeal, filed Dec. 11, McCullough accused the court of bias against Ali and the counsel that “materially affected” the trial. It said the court failed to “properly address the safety concerns against the defence in light of clear and specific threats.”
Fowler called the apparent lack of response to the threats “stunning.”
He said the case has brought up questions for defence lawyers about whether their safety is of the same importance as other court participants.
“If the Crown had been threatened by a witness or family member of the accused, would the response have been the same? I think most of us are saying I very, very, very much doubt it,” he said.
McConchie said cases of violence in courthouses are rare but have happened in the past.
“I think this incident has brought home the potential risks for counsel, especially those litigating in highly contentious matters and I’m hoping that it brings forward some meaningful change to help ensure the safety of everyone who attends court in British Columbia,” she said.
She suggested the attorney general introduce protocols for when threats are launched against anyone involved in a court case.
“It’d be helpful to have some guidance from people who have the power to actually take concrete steps to protect people’s safety; be that the courts or the police or the sheriffs or an amalgamation of all of them.”
Asked about the gun incident and threats to Ali’s lawyers, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney General said an active police investigation was underway.
The spokesperson said the ministry and judiciary will review the facts of the incident after that investigation to “determine what, if any, further measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of all personnel and the public.”
“Each case is different and is assessed on its own merits,” the statement said. “Because of security reasons, the ministry cannot provide further details on specific cases.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2023.