Despite prosecutors' demands that she be jailed, the Canadian dentist charged in the slaying of her husband was placed under house arrest yesterday after pleading she "had no way of defying" a father who ordered her not to return to Baltimore for trial.
Alpna Patel's trial is scheduled to begin today, four days late. Patel, who flew to Baltimore Wednesday night, is charged with manslaughter in the stabbing death in 1999 of her physician husband at his Pimlico apartment. The case has sparked wide interest in part because their marriage had been arranged.
In a tense hearing before Circuit Judge John N. Prevas, prosecutors insisted that Patel should be jailed, while she and her attorney contended that her father gave her no choice.
Patel, dressed in a sari, testified that her father, a prominent Canadian physician, pays all of her expenses and did not want her to return to Baltimore because he did not think she could get a fair trial.
"I felt like I had no way of disobeying that. I did not have money or the financial status to book a flight myself," Patel, 28, said after offering Prevas her "humblest apologies."
An infuriated prosecutor mocked her excuse and told Prevas he should stick by his original order to have her jailed pending the outcome of her trial.
Assistant State's Attorney William D. McCollum argued that allowing Patel to walk out of the courtroom not handcuffed was a slap against the U.S. criminal justice system.
"I think it is the first time I have heard a 28-year-old person [say], 'It's Daddy's fault,'" McCollum said. "The issue here is the defendant is old enough, educated enough" to make her own choices.
McCollum also argued that the foreign news media covering the trial would humiliate Prevas if he reversed his earlier orders - which he had sternly issued Tuesday when he said "all chances are gone."
"The issue here is did you mean business?" McCollum asked Prevas. "I would hate to think [the press] would report this is our strategy when warrants are issued."
Prevas said later, "I think I am secure enough, big enough, to back down when circumstances warrant."
Prevas said he believes Patel also was under a lot of pressure to remain in Canada - not only from her father but also from Canadian women's rights groups.
Reading from a Canadian Internet news site, Prevas quoted a Saskatchewan Action Committee official saying Patel should not return to Baltimore because she cannot get a fair trial with a male judge and prosecutor.
Prevas, a former narcotics prosecutor appointed to the bench in 1986, has sometimes been quick to jail defendants. Two years ago he ordered defendants put behind bars if they showed up for trial without an attorney, a practice he stopped after it was publicized.
But Prevas made it clear he disapproved of Patel's decision to briefly avoid trial after he - and two other Circuit Court judges who recently denied two defense motions to delay the trial - said it must begin on time.
"When you did not get on a plane, you rubbed dirt in the faces of those two judges," Prevas said.
Prevas ordered Patel to remain inside an Owings Mills condominium - which her father purchased after his daughter was arrested - except to attend her trial and to meet with her attorney.
Prevas also gave prosecutors permission to station a police officer in the condominium to make sure she does not flee to her hometown, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
"I hope this little teapot rebellion is over," Prevas told Patel.
Prevas refused to hold Patel's father, Dr. Dev Amin, in contempt of court for any possible role he may have played in his daughter's decision to ignore the order to return to Baltimore.
But Prevas told McCollum he could convene a grand jury to explore charges against Amin. "I should revoke [Amin's] bail, not" Patel's, the judge said flippantly.
Prosecutors would not comment on possible action against the father, but during the hearing McCollum said that "contempt spreads also to Dr. Amin."
Amin, who arrived in Baltimore Wednesday night with Patel and his wife, was not in court yesterday because he is still recovering from quintuple bypass heart surgery, said the defendant's attorney, Edward Smith Jr. Smith, like Patel, asserted she could not return without her father's help because she could not afford a plane ticket.
"You have to understand, he has paid for the defense, paid for the bail and paid for the home in Owings Mills," Smith said. "If she did not have money ... she would have had to walk" to Baltimore.
Smith persuaded Patel and Amin that she should return Wednesday. He went to Prevas and obtained a court order preventing city police from arresting her when she arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
That action, sparing her from jail, bewildered Nandlal Patel, the dead husband's father. "I don't understand anything anymore," he said before yesterday's hearing.
Smith said he is not worried that Patel won't receive a fair trial, despite Prevas' earlier anger at her failure to appear and the pre-trial publicity. He called Prevas "a good man" and "a fair judge."
A somber-looking Patel, who was seen praying before the hearing, refused to comment as she walked out of the courthouse and was surrounded by a dozen photographers.
Patel was tried last winter on charges in her husband's death, but that ended in a mistrial when the lone male juror held out for a guilty verdict. Her new trial is expected to center once again on the role Hindu fathers play in their children's marriages.
Prosecutors contend that Patel stabbed her husband, Viresh Patel, 26, several times when she became angry that he refused to shield her from an overbearing father-in-law. Patel was living with her in-laws in Buffalo, N.Y., while Viresh Patel was completing a medical residency at Union Memorial Hospital.
She flew to Baltimore to see her husband, arriving with a written list of ways to save their marriage, her attorneys say. They assert that her husband attacked her after she threatened to leave him and that she acted in self-defense.
The case has been closely followed in Canada, where a documentary on the Patels' marriage was aired months before the husband's death. Baltimore residents' interest appears to have been piqued, too.
Several people who were watching the media throng at the courthouse yesterday had opinions on the judge's decision not to jail Patel.
"I think it is a joke," said Eric Kelly, 32, of Essex. "If that was anybody else, they would say the law is the law. That woman got off because she has the money and status, and if that was me, I would have got nailed."
Kelly continued, "Walk into the courthouse, you will see people who are going to jail on misdemeanors much less a fugitive."
Ebony Tyler-El, 20, of East Baltimore, watched Patel rush past with her lawyers after the hearing. Tyler-El said she has "no doubt" about what would have happened to her.
"I don't need to think, I know," she said. "I would have been chained, shackled and not have walked out here. No bail, nothing. But money talks."