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Jury finds Patel guilty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After three days of turbulent deliberations, a jury convicted Alpna Patel of voluntary manslaughter yesterday in the death of her husband, ending a courtroom drama that showcased the couple's arranged marriage and traditional Hindu customs.

The jury appeared to be deadlocked - as was the case in her first trial last winter, when all but one person voted for acquittal. But this time the majority wanted to convict Patel, and they finally persuaded a lone holdout that the Canadian dentist probably would be spared prison if found guilty.

Six sheriff's deputies surrounded Patel, who was wearing a white and purple sari dress, handcuffed her and hustled her to the Baltimore City Jail as her grieving parents wept. Her father's efforts to hug the teary-eyed Patel were rebuffed by a deputy, and family friends had to cradle her sobbing mother out of the courtroom.

Patel was put on suicide watch last night at the jail as a precaution and was receiving mental health counseling, said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of Pretrial Detention and Services. Flanagan said she had to give up her sari for a prison smock.

Patel's attorney, Edward Smith Jr., said he would likely appeal the verdict.

She "has faith, and that is what is important," he said.

The verdict concluded a two-week trial that started after Patel briefly became a fugitive. She refused to return from Canada to Baltimore to face charges that she stabbed her physician husband when he fell asleep as she read him a list of ways to save their strained marriage.

The couple had wed 10 months earlier in an arranged Hindu marriage.

The jury of 10 women and two men did not convict Patel of involuntary manslaughter, which means a death resulting from an accident. But she could face up to 10 years in prison on the conviction for voluntary manslaughter - intentional killing without malice or premeditation - when Circuit Judge John N. Prevas sentences her Oct. 24.

Prevas will hold a bail review hearing today to determine whether Patel, who had been out on bond since a few days after she was arrested in May 1999, will be released from jail until she is sentenced.

The first trial ended in a mistrial when the lone male juror refused to go along with 11 female jurors and acquit Patel of second-degree murder and other charges.

During the retrial, prosecutors presented a slimmed-down case highlighting evidence that included the victim's multiple stab wounds and a cut phone cord.

Patel's attorneys argued that their client acted in self-defense after her husband, Viresh Patel, attacked her.

Smith also argued that his client was a modern Hindu woman who was mentally mistreated by her traditional in-laws, whom she was forced to live with while Viresh Patel completed a medical residency at Union Memorial Hospital.

As they left the courthouse yesterday, jurors said 11 of the 12 were ready to convict Patel since the first few hours of deliberations. But they said one, Geraldine Burnette, 52, held out for acquittal.

That led to battles over the next two days that included screaming, pounding on tables, name-calling and a near fistfight, Burnette said.

"I was angry; they wanted me to vote like they wanted, but I have a mind," Burnette said, noting that at one point she almost "hit" other jurors.

Burnette said she believed Patel's self-defense argument and said Patel was the victim of an overbearing father-in-law who stifled her rights as a married woman.

"She should have murdered her father-in-law; he seemed to control everything," Burnette said. "I don't believe she would just kill [her husband]."

About 2:30 p.m. yesterday, the jurors reported to Prevas that they were hopelessly deadlocked, but the judge ordered them to continue deliberations.

The forewoman, Patricia J. Hall, took Burnette aside in the jury room, went through the voluntary manslaughter charge and convinced her that Patel would not be sentenced to prison, both women said.

"It was one juror who didn't understand the meaning of voluntary manslaughter and did not understand the meaning of guilty. ... She was basically screaming and yelling and getting outrageous," Hall said.

But Hall pressed on, she said, and two hours later the jury returned the guilty verdict.

Although Patel could face up to 10 years in prison, the sentencing guidelines for someone with no criminal record call for one to six years, according to Prevas.

Hall and other jurors said they had little doubt of Patel's guilt.

"We just didn't believe" Patel, said Hall. "The amount of blood on the bed speaks for itself."

"I always thought she was guilty from day one," said Lorraine S. Pitt, 44.

Arline Roman, 64, said prosecutors presented "a very good" case that stuck to the law and the evidence.

Assistant State's Attorney William McCollum saved much of his argument for his closing statements to the jury. He had watched his evidence crumble during the first trial because of Smith's skills at aggressively cross-examining witnesses and rebutting the prosecutor's evidence.

McCollum refused to comment yesterday, but said he would make a public statement after this morning's hearing.

Smith is expected to argue this morning that Patel is not a flight risk and should be released from jail until sentencing.

McCollum is expected to point out Patel did not return from Canada two weeks ago until Prevas revoked her bond, which he later reinstated, and so she should remain incarcerated.

Prevas heard some of those arguments yesterday, when Smith pleaded with him to keep Patel out of jail last night. Prevas concluded that he needed until this morning to make a final decision, so he would jail Patel to make sure "flight, fear or panic" does not set in.

"This is a case I don't know the answer, I don't know the right thing to do," Prevas said before ordering deputies to handcuff Patel. "I'm just too concerned she could break away."

Smith told Prevas he would appeal the verdict because of several factors.

One is that Patel did not receive a fair trial because of the coverage by about 20 U.S. and Canadian reporters attending the trial, Smith said. Smith called reporters "jerks" yesterday during a hearing on a motion before the verdict.

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