A Toronto mother’s fight to clear her name in the death of her disabled 16-year-old daughter Cynara continues as her retrial, in which she once again faces a charge of first-degree murder, began at a downtown Toronto courtroom last week.
For the second time in seven years, Cindy Ali, now 52-years-old, is pleading not guilty to her daughter’s 2011 death.
Cynara, who lived with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, was unable to walk, talk, or feed herself, relying on daily care from her family. She died in hospital in February 2011, a day after Ali called 911 claiming that two men had broken into her Scarborough, Ont home and that her daughter had stopped breathing during the intrusion.
After about a year of investigation by the Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) Homicide Unit, Ali was charged with manslaughter — a charge upgraded months later to first-degree murder.
In the initial trial, which took five years to commence, the Crown argued that Ali had smothered Cynara with a pillow and fabricated the scene to cover up the crime. She did this, the prosecution alleged, because the burden of caring for Cynara had become too much.
The defence maintained Ali’s account that Cynara had suffered a medical episode amidst a break-in. Cynara was loved deeply, bringing in a witness who testified to seeing two men of similar descriptions in the complex at around the same time that the 911 call was placed.
The jury deliberated for 10 hours before convicting Ali of first-degree murder and handing the mother of four an automatic sentence of life in prison.
In an appeal launched in 2020, criminal defence lawyer James Lockyer, known for his high-profile upheavals of wrongful convictions, argued that the instructions given to the jurors in Ali’s trial had “substantial errors.” For example, other possible scenarios, such as that Cynara had died of natural causes and Ali had panicked, were not put to the jury for deliberation. Lockyer argued this set of instructions “straightjacketed” them into their decision.
The argument was enough to overturn Ali’s sentence and grant her a new trial. Presided over by Justice Jane Kelly alone this time around, the retrial began in Toronto on Oct. 17.
Beginning with Crown submissions, the court first heard the audio of the 911 call placed by Ali following the alleged break-in. Then, Toronto firefighter Semahj Bujokas, the first responder who resuscitated Cynara on the day of the incident, was called upon to testify.
Bujokas said he found both Ali and Cynara in the home – Cynara, without vital signs and Ali uninjured, conscious, yet unresponsive.
He then began efforts to resuscitate Cynara, he told the court. After regaining her vital signs, Cynara was transported to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, where she died the next day. An autopsy identified the cause of death as cardiac arrest, causing a lack of oxygen leading to a brain injury.
Echoing the account he gave in the 2016 trial, Bujokas said that upon an initial assessment of the scene at Ali’s residence, he did not believe there had been a break-in. According to the official, there had been snow on the ground that day, yet he had not observed any footprints inside the home.
In cross-examination, Lockyer pressed the firefighter’s recollection of the amount of snow on the ground that day.
Bujokas was also questioned on whether he had developed a “vested interest” in Ali’s outcome in the years since resuscitating Cynara. To this point, Lockyer presented a number of text messages exchanged between the firefighter and a documentarian working on a film about the case, scheduled to premiere on Sunday.
The messages, sent from the firefighter’s phone to the filmmaker’s, seem to express anger over Ali’s 2020 release on bail.
“That’s bulls–t that she is out. I’ll be pissed if they don’t send her back,” one read.
“If there’s a retrial, I will make sure every question I want asked is asked, there will be no doubt, no question, and no chance, the outcome will be the same,” read another.
Bujokas denied any personal attachment to the proceeds. He said his responses may have been in reference to a larger trend of prisoner releases taking place in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“The case only mattered to me when I saved that little girl,” he said.
On Wednesday, the court heard Ali’s initial interview with Toronto police, conducted hours after Cynara had been transported to the hospital by Renata Louhikari, a former TPS homicide detective.
In the interview, Ali spent considerable time explaining her life with Cynara – the care the child needed and the support system upon which she relied to achieve that care.
“She has always been my baby,” Ali told the detective, wiping away tears.
Recounting the alleged break-in, Ali said two men – one, armed with a gun – burst through the front door of her home on Burrows Hall Boulevard and demanded a package. One of the men guided Ali through the home, looking for the item while another stayed in the living room with Cynara.
When Ali returned to the living room, she said she saw Cynara was lying on the couch. The teen appeared pale and quiet, she said.
The two men proceeded to flee through the basement, stating that they’d gotten the wrong house, she said.
Ali explained that she then began to lose consciousness while calling 911 and eventually woke up to first responders in her home.
“I did not hurt my baby,” she told the detective as the interview came to an end, now past midnight on Feb. 20. “I did not do anything to that child because she doesn’t deserve that.”
In his cross-examination, Lockyer used call logs to corroborate a number of details in the account given by Ali in the interview.
The trial is expected to reconvene on Oct. 31.