Alpna Patel took the stand in her manslaughter trial yesterday to testify on her strained relationship with her father-in-law and describe how she thwarted an attack from her husband after he held a knife inches from her chest.
In a confident voice, Patel told jurors she never touched the knife but "struggled and struggled" with her husband, Viresh Patel, and fought off the attack by wrestling him after he continued lunging at her with the knife, which was a wedding gift.
"All I know is I saw the knife, and I thought he was about to kill me ... we struggled and struggled; then he was screaming and shrieking, and it was just a terrible sound," Patel said, as she broke into an extended sob. "I had to push so hard to keep that knife away from me."
She continued, "I never took the knife, I never had it in my hands."
Her husband's mother - who was visiting and sleeping on her son's couch - was awakened by the struggle and went to ask a neighbor to call 911, according to Patel.
While the mother was gone, Patel testified, her injured husband suddenly rose and lurched at her again. That time, she "moved his hand and he fell flat on his face," Patel testified.
Viresh Patel, a physician from Buffalo, N.Y. who was completing a surgical residency at Union Memorial Hospital, was stabbed six times. Alpna Patel, a Canadian dentist living with her in-laws in Buffalo while her husband completed his residency, told police after the incident that she was not injured. The couple had married 10 months before Viresh Patel's death on March 24, 1999, in an arranged Hindu marriage.
Patel will continue her testimony today and then face cross-examination from prosecutors. Closing arguments are expected later today or tomorrow.
Patel's three hours of testimony came after a women's studies professor from the University of British Columbia testified about stress Hindu women face when they live with their husbands' parents. The professor, Sunera Thobani, also testified that Indian women in joint-family environments usually resort to suicide before they consider violence against their in-laws or husband.
"In such situations where a marriage is intolerable, it would be more common to turn her harmful instincts inwards," said Thobani, former head of the Canadian equivalent of the National Organization for Women.
Circuit Judge John N. Prevas told jurors that Thobani should be considered an impartial expert on the subject of Hindu women. But during a break in the proceedings the professor said she sympathizes with Patel.
"My personal opinion is this is a woman who faced tremendous pressures and showed a great deal of courage," Thobani said after testifying. "Canadian women are watching this with great interest. ... In Canada the issue is violence against women."
During her testimony, Patel detailed how what she thought was a storybook marriage deteriorated into feuds with her father-in-law - whom she still calls papa - after he criticized the way she did laundry, cooked and cleaned.
"Everything had to go through papa," Patel said.
Patel said she left Buffalo on March 23, 1999, to tell her husband she was planning to return to Canada because of several confrontations with her father-in-law, Nandlal Patel.
The arguments centered on Nandlal Patel's order that Alpna Patel not associate with people from "certain ethnic groups" because "it would bring a bad name to the family," Patel testified. She also said she was upset because Nandlal Patel would not let her quit a dental residency in Buffalo to move to Baltimore to be with Viresh.
The last confrontation was a 5 1/2 -hour discussion between Alpna and Viresh Patel and her in-laws in Buffalo on the Saturday night before the slaying. Patel said the conversation, which began at midnight, was centered on resolving the family's differences and sometimes became heated.
That discussion spurred Patel to travel to Baltimore and confront her husband with a list of 39 ways to save their marriage. The couple's conversation, however, was interrupted several times by her father-in-law, who called to scorn Patel for leaving Buffalo without his consent. Nandlal Patel called the last time to instruct the couple to go to bed and then talked privately with his son, Patel said.
Patel complied with the order to go to bed "right now."
"I was just asleep, and the next thing I recall is hearing water running ... then I just felt someone straddle my legs, and I felt pressure on my legs," Patel said. "I just suddenly opened my eyes and looked up and saw Viresh hovering over me with a knife pointed over my chest."