Court overturns conviction in killing

Prosecutor faulted for remarks to Patel jury

dentist may be retried

October 05, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Faulting a prosecutor for "outrageous" remarks to the jury, a state appeals court yesterday overturned the manslaughter conviction of a Canadian dentist whose arranged Hindu marriage to a physician in Baltimore ended after 10 months when she stabbed him in 1999.

The Court of Special Appeals noted that its 30-page ruling does not exonerate Alpna Patel of charges that she killed Viresh Patel in his Pimlico apartment, but sends the case back to Baltimore Circuit Court for a possible retrial.

However, it remains unclear whether prosecutors will appeal the ruling or retry Patel, who was released in January after serving about two years of her three-year prison term. Her state supervision is scheduled to end in February.

It would be the third trial for the 30-year-old dentist from Saskatchewan, who claimed that she acted in self-defense.

Her first trial, in 2000, ended in a mistrial, and she briefly was considered a fugitive when she refused to return from Canada for a new trial. But she did return, and a jury convicted her in September 2000 of voluntary manslaughter.

"We are persuaded that appellant is entitled to a new trial as a result of improper and prejudicial comments made by the prosecutor during the state's closing argument," Joseph H. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals, wrote for the three-judge panel that heard the appeal.

The court faulted remarks by William McCollum, a veteran assistant state's attorney in Baltimore who recently left that office. As he reminded jurors that the victim suffered five stab wounds, McCollum said, "Let me go over this again for the members of the press who are here," and also made what the judges called "unfair references" to Patel as a "poor little rich girl," according to the ruling.

In what the court called his "most outrageous remarks," McCollum told jurors that ego is what motivated defense lawyer Edward Smith Jr.'s arguments.

Trial Judge John N. Prevas sustained objections to the statements, but did not go along with a defense bid for a mistrial.

Neither McCollum nor Smith could be reached for comment yesterday.

Patel, reached last night at her home in Owings Mills, said she thought yesterday's ruling was a step in the right direction.

"I'm very happy with the ruling from the Court of Special Appeals. I have professed my innocence all along," she said. "There never should have been a conviction."

She said that events of the past 3 1/2 years have been traumatic for her family and her husband's family.The couple's union was the topic of a Canadian Broadcast Co. television news feature that depicted their traditional arranged marriage as a modern choice with Indian cultural roots. She spoke in the feature of friendship, of growing to love her spouse.

But their relationship grew troubled. She wanted to leave her in-laws' Buffalo, N.Y., home, where she lived apart from her husband, who was in residency at Union Memorial Hospital.

Prosecutors argued during the trial that Patel stabbed her husband after he fell asleep when she read him a list of ways to save their strained marriage. But Patel maintained that he attacked her after she told him she intended to go home to Canada for a time.

Prosecutors can ask the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, to hear the case. The state attorney general's office "will carefully review the opinion to determine if it will seek further review," said Kathryn Grill Graeff, chief of the criminal appeals division.

The office has 45 days to decide.

A retrial is another possibility. A spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office said it had not reviewed the ruling and would not comment or speculate on what the next step might be.

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