The Chinese visa student who snatched nine-year-old Toronto schoolgirl Cecilia Zhang from her family home in October 2003 pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on Tuesday, in what is being described as a botched kidnapping attempt.
Min Chen, originally charged with first-degree murder in the schoolgirl's disappearance and subsequent murder, entered the surprise plea in a Brampton, Ont. courtroom in what would have been the first day of his trial.
Chen's defence lawyer John Rosen told reporters that each side had much to lose in a trial.
"There is one factor I think everybody should keep in mind and that is that Sherry Xu and Raymond Zhang, the parents of Cecilia Zhang, are emotionally fragile," Rosen told reporters.
"My client had no desire to put them through unnecessarily a lengthy and difficult trial that would further compromise their mental and physical well-being."
Neither Cecilia's parents nor Chen's were in the courtroom to hear the guilty plea.
Cecilia's parents react
In a victim impact statement played in court, Raymond Zhang expressed his grief over the loss of his daughter.
"Oct. 20, 2003, is the darkest day in my life. My beloved Cecilia was kidnapped from our home. After the day, my whole world collapsed," Zhang said in the statement.
"I will never see my beloved Cecilia again in this life. I will not be able to hear her laughter again, and I will not get another hug or kiss from her. No words can express the pain, the loss and the anger in my heart."
The video of her mother, Sherry Xu, clearly showed where the tape had been stopped and started again as she broke down weeping.
"She was abandoned in the wilderness by her murderer and was covered by snow for 161 days," Xu said. "How cruel is the human heart? Cecilia will never come back. She is gone forever."
The Crown is seeking to have Chen serve between 17 and 20 years of his sentence before he is eligible for parole while the defence is asking Chen be granted parole no later than 12 years into his term.
Justice Bruce Durno will rule Friday morning on Chen's parole eligibility.
"I expect though that we're looking at 15 to 20 years before there's any eligibility for parole and then of course once that's finished, he has to deal with the legal system in China -- far worse," CTV's legal expert Steven Skurka said, appearing on Canada AM.
Skurka said it was almost guaranteed that Chen would be deported when he was released on parole.
"China takes the position no matter what happens in Canada with a Chinese resident, they'll independently look at the case and believe me, he faces far worse in that country."
Chen admits to murder
According to an agreed statement of facts read in court, Chen admitted he killed Cecilia by placing his hand over her mouth as he carried the schoolgirl from her home.
The judge asked the 23-year-old directly if he understood that pleading guilty to second-degree murder would mean a sentence of life in prison. Chen replied that he did.
The agreed statement of facts reveals that the murder was a kidnapping attempt that went wrong.
The gifted Grade Four student was snatched from her home in October 2003 as her parents slept metres away.
Court heard that Chen went to the home in October 2003 to kidnap Cecilia for ransom.
Chen had apparently befriended the girl and her family through a woman who lived briefly in the Zhang home between September 2002 and March 2003.
Chen, who was in Canada under a student visa that was about to expire, was desperate to remain in the country, CTV's Peter Murphy said.
In the agreed statement of facts, Chen said "it was never his plan to harm or to cause the death of Cecilia."
"He wanted to keep her alive, obtain a sizable ransom and return her to family," according to the statement.
With his funds running out, Chen wanted to secure $25,000 that would pay for a marriage of convenience to keep him in the country, Murphy said.
"And so in October of 2003 -- he had known the Zhang family because he had visited boarders there -- he broke into the house through the window, sneaked up in the middle of the night along the corridor, looking for Cecilia to kidnap her."
When Chen found the young girl in the dead of night, she was wrapped in a towel, Murphy reported.
"Fearing that she was going to scream, he attacked her, wrapped the towel around her head, put his arm around her neck, choked her and dragged her outside to his trunk and put her in," he said.
By the time he got her into the trunk of his car, her body was limp.
Chen drove a short distance away, and when he went to check in on the schoolgirl, she wasn't breathing.
"So this was a botched kidnapping attempt, a very incompetent one as well, because he didn't have any plans to take her anywhere. He was hoping that he could just leave her in the trunk, phone the family, get the money, and then let her go," Murphy said.
Botched kidnap attempt
Chen's defence lawyer told reporters the kidnap plan was a spontaneous one that went awry.
"It wasn't as if there were days or weeks of planning. He went to the house probably, in my opinion, not knowing exactly what he was going to do," Rosen said.
"He came without any weapon, without any mask, without any means of overcoming any resistance, without any noxious substance, tape, rope, gags -- nothing like that -- and most importantly, came without gloves and left his fingerprints on the window."
The brazen early-morning abduction prompted a door-to-door search in the area surrounding the family home in northeast Toronto and extended to an international probe where local investigators were collaborating with police in Asia.
But the search ended in tragedy when her skeletal remains were found five months later in a wooded ravine in Mississauga, west of Toronto.
Chen was arrested and charged on July 21, 2004.
The Shanghai-born man entered Canada on a student visa on New Year's Day 2001, a month before his 18th birthday.
Outside the courthouse, Peel Region police Sgt. Todd Moore read a statement on behalf of Cecilia's parents.
"We have experienced a sense of loss that cannot be explained in understandable terms... each day has been extremely difficult," said the statement.
"Two-and-a-half years have passed and each single day has been extremely difficult. The fact that there is now a guilty plea by the person accused in this case brings some sense of closure to us, but no act will ever bring our dear Cecilia back."