SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A woman whose throat was slashed during a deadly attack on her family broke down Thursday as she testified that she can still hear her husband's screams six years after he was murdered.
A tearful Leela Dhanak told an Orange County courtroom that she was attacked by her younger daughter's ex-boyfriend and another man when she came home after working late one night in May 2007, fell unconscious and woke up from a coma three weeks later to discover her home had been burned and her husband and elder daughter killed.
"I do hear him screaming, crying. In my sleep I do hear," Dhanak testified during the trial of now-29-year-old Iftekhar Murtaza on charges of carrying out the fatal attack before trailing off into tears.
Prosecutors say Murtaza carried out the fiery attack on the family in an ill-conceived plot to reunite with his then-college freshman girlfriend Shayona Dhanak after she blamed the breakup of their two-year relationship on differences between her Hindu family and his Muslim faith.
In May 2007, authorities rushed to a fire at the Dhanak's home in suburban Orange County and found Leela battered unconscious outside and her husband and elder daughter missing. The next morning, the bodies of Jay Dhanak and 20-year-old Karishma Dhanak were found stabbed and charred in a brush fire near the college dorm where Shayona Dhanak lived.
Murtaza is charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances of burglary and kidnapping, attempted murder and conspiracy. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Two of Murtaza's friends have been convicted of the killings and one of them has been sentenced to life in prison.
At one point during Dhanak's testimony, Murtaza blurted out that she was wrong, said prosecutor Howard Gundy. The judge admonished Murtaza and said he might toss him from the courtroom if there was another outburst.
Dhanak told the court her younger daughter had dated Murtaza but told her she didn't have deep feelings for him. As a mother, she said she wished her daughter had dated someone of Indian heritage, like her family, but above all wanted her to concentrate on her studies at University of California, Irvine.
Dhanak said she didn't particularly like Murtaza, but had her daughter truly loved him, she would have supported the young couple.
Under cross-examination, Dhanak conceded her memory of exactly what happened during the attack has varied since the incident. Defense lawyer Doug Myers pointed out differences in the details she gave during two police interviews and on the stand in other court proceedings about what she saw and heard that night.
She testified that many things remained foggy to her in the weeks and months after the attack as she took painkillers for her wounds and antidepressants to cope with her losses. Over time, she said she believes her memory has improved, though she still has lapses.
In response to questions by Gundy, however, Dhanak said she had no problem identifying Murtaza in a photo line-up presented to her at the hospital six years ago as the man who attacked her and on that she has not wavered.
"I don't have any doubt in my mind he did attack me," she said.