Patel trial finally begins

Jury selected to hear charge of manslaughter

10 women, 2 men picked

Accused dentist's lawyers sought delay because of publicity

September 02, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The manslaughter trial of Canadian dentist Alpna Patel finally got under way yesterday, despite attempts by her lawyers to delay proceedings because of publicity surrounding the unusual case.

Ten women and two men were selected as jurors. In Patel's first trial in February, the jury panel had 11 women who wanted to acquit her, but the lone male juror wouldn't go along and a mistrial was declared.

Patel is charged with manslaughter in the stabbing death last year of her physician husband at his Northwest Baltimore apartment. They had wed 10 months earlier, in an arranged Hindu marriage featured in a Canadian documentary.

Patel's attorney, Edward Smith Jr., was opposed to starting the trial yesterday because he said his client has been portrayed in the news media "as Baltimore's fugitive."

"The well is so polluted it is impossible for us to get a clean drink of water," Smith said in a pretrial hearing. He sought to delay the proceedings for several weeks to allow the publicity to subside.

Circuit Judge John N. Prevas agreed with Smith that the media were using the case to "to sell and solely to sell" their products, but he denied the motion.

"What it boils down to is on one hand we have to make sure a defendant has a fair trial, [but] on the other hand the media has a right to report the news," Prevas said.

But Prevas was forced to triple the size of the potential juror pool from the standard 25 to almost 80 because of concerns about finding 12 jurors and three alternates who have not been exposed to the case.

During a break in the jury selection yesterday, five potential jurors were seen reading a newspaper article that detailed Patel's return Wednesday night to Baltimore from Saskatoon, Canada. A sheriff's deputy eventually told them to stop reading after he heard them giggling.

Patel had remained in Saskatoon, her hometown, earlier this week, defying a court order to return because her father did not think she would get a fair trial in the United States. Smith persuaded Patel to return. She is under house arrest in Owings Mills to make sure she does not flee back to Canada.

About half of the potential jurors - including the five reading the newspaper - were dismissed after they told Prevas and attorneys they had heard of the case or said they could not sit on a jury for what is expected to be a two-week trial.

From the remaining pool - about half women and half men - the prosecutors, defense attorneys and Prevas began further reducing the panel after private discussions with potential jurors that were closed to news reporters.

Smith and Assistant State's Attorney William D. McCollum each had the right to "challenge" - dismiss - prospective jurors. Smith reserved all of his challenges for men; McCollum challenged three women and one man.

Neither Smith nor McCollum offered an explanation for their decisions as they left the courthouse, but last week defense attorneys said they believe female jurors are more likely to be sympathetic to Patel.

Patel, 28, sat quietly during jury selection, but smiled at the jurors - particularly the younger women - as they left the courtroom. At least half of the women appear to be younger than 30.

The case has drawn international attention that increased this week when Patel became a fugitive after failing to show up in Prevas' courtroom.

Prevas demanded that she be arrested but rescinded the order, surprising police officers who went to the airport Wednesday to apprehend her as she returned to face trial.

Noting the publicity, Smith pleaded with Prevas to delay the trial and subpoenaed two reporters covering the trial in an attempt to show that too many Baltimore residents knew about the case.

The judge quashed the subpoenas for the reporters, from The Sun and the Associated Press, but said he would allow copies of The Sun to be entered as evidence.

Smith used the hearing to attack Baltimore media outlets' coverage of the case.

"As members of the Fourth Estate they believe they can do whatever they want and not be responsible for their actions," Smith said.

Prevas agreed with Smith, saying the stories represent "gotcha journalism." He noted, however, that many high-profile trials proceed under the media spotlight.

The case drew a few spectators yesterday. Vivian Gilchrist, 51, said she stayed home from work to attend the proceedings.

While watching jury selection, Gilchrist predicted it would be difficult for the 12 jurors to come to a unanimous verdict, based on her observations of the case.

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