Mistrial declared for dentist accused in spouse's killing

Juror switches vote on 2nd-degree charge after deliberations

Retrial is now an option

February 05, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore jury cleared Alpna Patel, the Canadian dentist accused of killing her husband in March, of first-degree murder charges yesterday, but a mistrial was declared after the only male juror switched his vote on second-degree murder charges.

In the dramatic end to the two-week trial, Circuit Judge John C. Themelis ordered the mistrial when juror No. 4 -- the only man on the 12-member panel -- wavered nearly a minute after the forewoman declared Patel was not guilty of both first- and second-degree murderbut said the jury was deadlocked on the manslaughter and weapons charges.

Themelis, stunned by the turn of events, then ordered the weary jury back into deliberations to reach a consensus as Patel -- who cried when she heard the foreman read the initial double not-guilty-of-murder verdicts -- huddled with lawyers.

"I am not taking a verdict unless I am sure of unanimity and that [the male juror] was not coerced," Themelis said. "I have to look in a mirror every day to shave."

During the 15-minute final round of deliberations, the crowded courtroom could hear female jurors screaming at the male juror.

When the jury returned, including the visibly shaken male juror, the forewoman switched the verdict to not-guilty of first-degree murder and a weapons charge, but said jurors deadlocked on manslaughter and second-degree murder. Prosecutors can now retry Patel on manslaughter or second-degree murder charges. Assistant State's Attorney William D. McCollum said he would make that decision Monday.

Patel, 27, is accused of killing her husband, Viresh, who was a 26-year-old medical resident at Union Memorial Hospital, in March last year. Prosecutors contend she stabbed Viresh several times because he would not shield her from a traditional Hindu father-in-law, she says, who tried to control their lives. But defense lawyers said Patel was acting in self-defense after her husband attacked her when she threatened to leave him.

The jury had been deliberating since Wednesday, and yesterday afternoon, it sent the judge a letter stating it had reached a unamimous decision that Patel was not guilty of first- and second-degree murder but it was deadlocked on manslaughter and the weapons charge.

Themelis ordered the jury to deliberate for two more hours and then seated jurors in the courtroom while the forewoman read the initial verdict.

During the process called "polling the jury" -- when each juror is asked about the announced verdict -- the male juror slumped in his chair and asked if he could talk to the judge. Themelis replied: "Sir, it's sort of like being pregnant, either you did [vote guilty] or you didn't."

After one minute of silence, the man said, "Not guilty." But Themelis, sensing the man's hesitation, then ordered more jury room deliberations, after which the man switched his vote on the second-degree murder charge.

The jurors hurried out of the courtroom after the mistrial was declared and would not comment.

Defense attorney Edward Smith Jr. said he was disturbed by the turn of events and might appeal. He said he expects prosecutors will retry Patel on second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Patel would not comment. Nandlal Patel, the father-in-law she claims treated her as family property, said he had "mixed feelings" about the mistrial. "For a while I lost faith in the justice system, but today I think it's strong," he said.

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