Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Monday, October 07, 2002

Patel conviction overturned

Appeals court rules prosecution erred in statements made to jury

Lori Coolican
The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon)

Alpna Patel

Citing "outrageous" statements made by the prosecutor to the jury at the close of her trial more than two years ago, a State of Maryland appeals court overturned former Saskatoon dentist Alpna Patel's manslaughter conviction Friday.

Patel is currently on parole after serving two-thirds of a three-year sentence for manslaughter following the death of her 26-year-old husband, Viresh Patel, who died from a stab wound to the neck in 1999. Patel was accused of killing her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, to escape an arranged marriage gone sour.

Whether she will be ordered to stand trial for a third time is up in the air, with Baltimore prosecutors refusing to say whether they will appeal the decision to the state's highest court, the Baltimore Sun reported Saturday.

"My contention is that this has been a travesty of justice which has gone on long enough," Patel's father, Dr. Devendra Amin, told The StarPhoenix during an interview at the family's home Sunday.

"The last three and a half years have been just one unending nightmare, especially made worse by the fact that our daughter is innocent," he said.

"From the very first day, I told (the media) that I will stake my life on my daughter's word. That is how much faith and trust I have in my daughter's truthfulness. And that is why I'm still living. Because I felt that truth would prevail in the end."

Veteran Baltimore prosecutor William McCollum made "improper and prejudicial comments" during his closing arguments at Patel's second trial, the chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals, Joseph H. Murphy Jr., wrote on behalf of the three-judge appeal panel.

Included in those remarks were a comment aimed specifically at the media -- McCollum said, "Let me go over this again for the members of the press who are here" -- and "unfair references" to Patel as a "poor little rich girl," the ruling states.

Most outrageous to the appeal court judges was a statement by McCollum indicating to the jury that Patel's defence lawyer, Edward Smith, Jr., was motivated by ego when he made his arguments. Smith could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The defence made a motion for a mistrial based on McCollum's remarks prior to the verdict, and trial Judge John Prevas sustained objections to the comments, but he refused to grant the motion.

Patel is not allowed to leave Baltimore while on parole, but her family has spoken to her and "she says it's about time some kind of justice appeared to be done," her father said.

Patel was living with her husband's parents in Buffalo while he completed his surgical residency.

She has always insisted the incident in her husband's Baltimore apartment began when she awoke in bed to find her husband kneeling over her with a knife, and that it accidentally pierced his neck as she struggled to defend herself against him.

Patel was acquitted of both first- and second-degree murder at her first trial in early 2000, but the judge declared a mistrial when one of the jurors -- the only man on the panel -- refused to acquit her of manslaughter, while the rest of the jury voted for complete acquittal.

A second jury convicted her of voluntary manslaughter in September, 2000, though one juror insisted later she still believed Patel was acting in self-defence, and only changed her vote to guilty after the others told her Patel would not go to jail if convicted.

Baltimore sees so much violence -- upwards of 365 murders every year -- that every death looks like murder to them, her father said.

"They have not for a second considered the possibility of an accident in self defence."

Friday's decision sends the case back to Baltimore Circuit Court for a possible retrial. The attorney general's office has 45 days to review the ruling before it decides whether to ask the Court of Appeals -- Maryland's highest court -- to hear the case.

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