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Yuba City woman acquitted of homicide in hatchet slaying of mother-in-law

05/14/2014 12:00 AM

05/14/2014 9:04 AM

Baljinder Kaur said her mother-in-law terrified her so much that she hacked the woman to death to save herself and her unborn daughter.

A Sutter County jury agreed that Kaur, an Indian immigrant, had suffered years of abuse from her mother-in-law because she was giving birth only to girls. Late last month, she was unanimously acquitted of first-degree murder in a novel case that put traditional Indian culture and the cult of sons on trial.

The jury of 10 women and two men found that Kaur acted in self-defense when she struck her mother-in-law, 68-year-old Baljit Kaur, at least seven times in the head with a hatchet. Baljinder Kaur, 39, had testified that she feared Baljit Kaur would kill both her and her unborn daughter. She was seven months pregnant with her second daughter when she left her mother-in-law lying in blood on the family’s living room floor in south Yuba City on Oct. 24, 2012.

Baljinder’s defense attorney, Mani Sidhu, mounted a successful cultural defense claiming that, according to Indian custom, daughters-in-law are expected to produce male heirs and to be subservient to the husband’s family, especially to the mother-in-law.

“You don’t have to sit there and take it; she stood up for herself,” said Sidhu, who like the Kaur family is a Sikh with roots in Punjab, India. “My client struck a blow for justice. She saved a life and stopped the cycle of violence.”

Sidhu argued that if Kaur hadn’t fought for her unborn daughter’s life, she likely would have been another victim of the “gendercide” that has claimed the lives of millions of Indian girls.

The case has attracted attention from Indian media outlets in England and the United States. “I’ve never heard anything like this,” said Robert Weisberg, a veteran criminal law professor at Stanford Law School. “This is a fascinating case. The defense – accounting for cultural standards and ‘gendercide’ – is plausible and obviously worked. Even if the threats weren’t direct, given what the daughter-in-law knew about the mother-in-law’s attitude toward female children, it’s reasonable to believe that if she was such a horrible, hellish person, she posed an unusual threat to Baljinder and her unborn baby.”

Baljinder Kaur’s husband, Jatinder Singh, is a long-haul truck driver based in Yuba City. He returned to his village in Punjab to marry Baljinder Kaur, a registered nurse.

“He was the eldest son,” Sidhu said “In Punjabi culture, for the eldest son to have a son first is something to really celebrate. Baljinder testified that a few days after getting married, she started feeling the pressure to have a male child.”

Singh did not testify or even attend the trial of his wife, according to both Sidhu and prosecutor Cameron King. Neighbors said Singh still lives in the two-story beige stucco house in the tidy south Yuba City neighborhood where his mother was killed. The family’s designated spokesman, Indy Purewal, said neither Singh nor other members of the family would comment on the verdict.

Baljinder Kaur spent 18 months in jail, leaving only for a week in January 2013 to give birth to her second daughter in a local hospital, six years to the day after her first daughter was born, Sidhu said. Since her release, she remains separated from her husband and has taken refuge with a family friend. She declined to comment for this story.

Both daughters are living with their father, Sidhu said.

“She’s got a lot of supporters, plans on getting her nursing license, and hopes to be reunited with her daughters,” Sidhu said. “But she’s never going back to that house.”

‘Pest from hell’

According to Sidhu, Baljinder Kaur’s marriage was arranged by the families, and she felt she had no choice but to go through with it. “She didn’t have a real conversation with her husband until the day after they were married,” Sidhu said.

In court, Baljinder Kaur said the first sign of trouble came when her mother-in-law sent back her dowry, demanding a higher bride price.

Baljinder Kaur’s tale of abuse, which she recounted on the witness stand and also to Sacramento marriage and family therapist Linda S. Barnard, an expert defense witness, began in 2007 when she learned she was pregnant with twin girls. “The sister-in-law tells her (that) her mom is probably going to strangle her,” Sidhu said.

After one twin died in utero, Baljinder Kaur said her mother-in-law referred to the dead baby as a “pest from hell” who went back where she belonged, according to Barnard’s 15-page domestic violence assessment.

Two weeks after her first daughter was born by cesarean section, Baljinder Kaur told Barnard, she was expected to resume doing all the chores, then go to her room. Her husband helped her immigrate to the United States, but said she was not allowed to petition for her own family to come here. Her mother-in-law was put in charge of all family decisions, according to the assessment, and her sister-in-law controlled the money. Baljinder Kaur wasn’t allowed to join the family in the living room or even eat with them.

When pregnant with another girl in 2011, her obstetrician, Dr. Maninderjit Atwal, reported that Baljinder Kaur said her mother-in-law pressured her to terminate the pregnancy. “Baljinder Kaur, during her visits with me, was always very quiet and at times fearful of the outcome,” Atwal said in a letter submitted as part of the court record.

Baljinder Kaur told Barnard that Baljit Kaur put flour and other slippery substances on the floor, hoping she would miscarry, and threatened to kill her and her baby, saying it was “no big deal” for men to get rid of their wives if they couldn’t produce sons. Meanwhile, she said, Baljinder Kaur’s daughter was not allowed on family outings with her cousins, or permitted to play outside with other kids. Baljinder Kaur wanted to obtain her nursing credential, but said her mother-in-law didn’t want to let her out of the house to study for two hours while her daughter was at preschool.

On the day of the killing, Baljinder Kaur testified, her mother-in-law accused her of having an affair and said her unborn baby was not her son’s, according to the attorneys on both sides.

“When she was feeding her daughter her breakfast, her mother-in-law kept telling her she was wasting their groceries ... yelling at her, ‘All you do is eat,’ ” Barnard said in her report. When she tried to go study, Baljit Kaur stood in her way, “came at her aggressively, and pulled her hair.”

Baljinder Kaur told Barnard that she recalled her mother-in-law telling her in Punjabi, “Today is the day we are going to end this. You die, and your baby dies.”

Baljinder Kaur testified that she ran into the garage, picked up the first thing she could find – a hatchet – and put it down in the kitchen when she thought Baljit Kaur had calmed down. But when she again tried to leave, she said, Baljit Kaur shoved her and kept jabbing her in the stomach with a pair of glasses. Baljinder Kaur told Barnard that she was convinced she had to save her baby. “I was blinded at the moment ... I was out of my mind,” she said.

An autopsy found that Baljinder Kaur struck her mother-in-law at least seven times in the head, causing four separate skull fractures, said prosecutor King. “She kept hitting her mother-in-law until she fell to the ground, tightened a scarf around her neck, then tried to loosen it but couldn’t. The body was discovered by the victim’s daughter around noon.”

‘Defending her child’

Baljinder Kaur initially denied she was involved, disposed of the hatchet in a dumpster at a local park and tried to persuade a study partner to provide an alibi, according to both attorneys. “I argued that this could not have been self-defense, because the autopsy showed the defendant continued to strike her mother-in-law with the hatchet well after the point the mother-in-law could no longer possibly attack her, even if you believed Baljit did attack her and was trying to induce a miscarriage,” King said, noting there were no witnesses to the slaying.

That night, when her husband arrived home, Baljinder Kaur told him about the killing, according to King and Sidhu. They said Baljinder Kaur testified that her husband said he was too tired to deal with it and they would handle it in the morning.

Two days later, King said, Singh took her to tell the police what happened, but warned her not to drag his mother or their family through the mud. She confessed to Sutter County sheriff’s Lt. Butah Uppal, who is also Punjabi. But when she took the witness stand, she said her confession had been coached by her husband, the attorneys said.

Before the killing, Baljinder Kaur told the court, she had begged her husband repeatedly to move the family out of his mother’s house, but he had told her to deal with it, Sidhu said.

Although Singh did not testify at the trial, his sister and brother, Kiranjit Mann and Manpreet Singh, “both said there was no abuse by anyone in the family, they were just a normal family that would have occasional differences and minor squabbles,” King said.

The jury, however, believed Baljinder Kaur, said forewoman Michelle Struhs. While members felt sympathy for the mother-in-law and her family, “We never felt that Baljinder made the decision in her mind to kill her mother-in-law. We felt she acted in self-defense only and had to find her not guilty.

“We felt she was defending her unborn child.”

‘Domestic accidents’

Numerous media accounts and studies have documented prejudice against female babies in India. University of California at Berkeley professors Sally Sutherland Goldman and Robert P. Goldman, expert defense witnesses in the case, said Baljinder’s account of her life with her mother-in-law is “entirely consistent with what we know of similar situations both in India and in the Indo-American community.”

Abuse at the hands of Indian mothers-in-law is “sadly, immensely common and is documented by virtually innumerable cases of violence, often fatal, directed against wives ... for such reasons as perceived insufficiency of a dowry or the failure to produce male children,” the Goldmans said in their report. “Typically, in India, these murders are written off as domestic accidents. One of the most common triggers for such violence is the daughter-in-law’s second pregnancy with a girl child.”

The Goldmans cited a 2006 United Nations report estimating that 7,000 girl fetuses are aborted each day in India for this reason.

Barnard, the therapist, concluded in her report that Baljinder Kaur suffered from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “The abuse was escalating and she had no way out,” Barnard wrote. “She felt trapped and afraid for her life.”

Some members of the Sacramento area Sikh community said such bias against girls is far from the norm among Indian families in the region. Manpreet Gill, a Sacramento nurse born in Punjab, said that while some Indian families want a boy who can take the family’s name forward, “I’ve never personally witnessed such aggression toward anyone I know who’s had a daughter. I actually hosted four baby showers, and the families couldn’t be more happy and proud of their daughters.”

Goldie Shergil, a retired high school teacher from Punjab who lives in Sacramento, said, “I have two daughters, and my mother-in-law dotes on them as much as my son.”

Sacramento Sikh leader Darshan Singh Mundy said that while many Hindus and Sikhs favor male children to continue the family name, in 40 years in California, “I’ve never heard of a single confrontation over the gender of the unborn child.”

Census figures show no clear preference for boys among Asian Indians in California. About 48 percent of the state’s Asian Indians under age 10 are girls; 49 percent of all children statewide under age 10 are girls.

Sacto 911 Staff

Bill Lindelof
blindelof@sacbee.com
@Lindelofnews

Cathy Locke
clocke@sacbee.com

Andy Furillo
Superior Court
afurillo@sacbee.com
@andyfurillo

Denny Walsh
Federal Court
dwalsh@sacbee.com

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