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Husband of slain schoolteacher found guilty in wife's death

The second-degree murder trial of Mukhtiar Panghali shown here continues in B.C. Supreme Court.

Felicity Don for The Globe and Mail/felicity don The Globe and Mail

As the judge shot down one Crown argument after the next, it appeared the family of slain schoolteacher Manjit Panghali would be deprived of the verdict it sought for more than four years.

Tears grew more frequent, breaths even shorter as Madam Justice Heather Holmes - handing down her ruling in the judge-only trial - outlined why some of the circumstantial case against Ms. Panghali's husband would not be enough to convict him in his pregnant wife's death.

But just as it appeared Mukhtiar Panghali would be acquitted of second-degree murder and interfering with bodily remains, the judge shifted course. She agreed with Crown evidence that Mr. Panghali took his wife's cellphone after she supposedly disappeared, and that a man caught on gas station surveillance in the middle of the night was indeed him.

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By the time the rollercoaster ruling came to an end, Ms. Panghali's family members cheered and embraced - Mr. Panghali was convicted on both counts.

"We were just relieved that this part of it is finally over and we can move on with our lives and we can start the healing process," Jasmine Bhambra, Ms. Panghali's sister, told reporters.

Mr. Panghali was charged a few months after his wife's charred corpse was found near a Delta, B.C., waterway on Oct. 23, 2006. Ms. Panghali was four months pregnant. She was strangled and likely died before her body was burned because there was no soot in her airways.

The couple had a daughter who was three years old when her mother was killed.

Mr. Panghali will be sentenced March 17. Second-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence, but his parole eligibility must still be determined. His lawyer, Michael Tammen, said he will "probably" appeal but must first review the judge's ruling. Mr. Panghali showed no emotion after the verdict, though Mr. Tammen said his client was disappointed.

Ms. Panghali's death made headlines for a number of reasons. The 31-year-old was killed at a time when there was a spate of violence against Indo-Canadian women in the Lower Mainland. And during a news conference after she first disappeared, her husband openly wept in front of reporters, begging for help in tracking her down.

During the trial, the Crown suggested those were crocodile tears and accused Mr. Panghali of feigning concern, while trying to fend off probing questions from friends and police.

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In her ruling, Judge Holmes said Mr. Panghali's initial reaction and demeanour were "of little probative value" in the case. She also dismissed Mr. Panghali's false claims of contacting his wife's friends, and negative comments he made about his wife to authorities.

Where the case appeared to turn was in Mr. Panghali's possession of his wife's cellphone. Mr. Panghali said he did not see his partner after she went to a prenatal yoga class on Oct. 18. But phone records indicated she made calls before that class, suggesting the phone was in her possession at the time.

"The evidence provides a compelling basis for the conclusion that Mr. Panghali acquired possession of Ms. Panghali's cellular telephone after her yoga class. Since Ms. Panghali was seen leaving the yoga class, and since abundant evidence indicates that Mr. Panghali did not know where the class was held, the only rational inference from the evidence is that Ms. Panghali returned home to Mr. Panghali, and that he acquired possession of her cellular telephone during or after the events that then followed," Judge Holmes said in her ruling.

The Crown also presented evidence Mr. Panghali purchased a lighter and a newspaper from a gas station hours after his wife was last seen. The judge said she studied the images carefully and had "no doubt" the man pictured was Mr. Panghali.

She added Mr. Panghali should have raised alarm bells when his wife failed to show up to take their daughter to preschool. The fact he didn't, the judge said, indicated he knew more about the disappearance than he let on.

Ms. Bhambra, who now takes care of the couple's daughter, said it's been a long, hard road to a guilty verdict. "Nobody should ever have to go through something like this. Although it's been difficult for us, it doesn't compare to the pain and horror that Manjit must have felt in her final moments, having her life taken away from her by the one person who was supposed to love and protect her."

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Ms. Bhambra called Mr. Panghali a "sick and twisted and evil monster."

While the death highlighted domestic violence in the Indo-Canadian community, Ms. Bhambra said no culture is immune. She encouraged those experiencing such difficulties in their relationships to reach out to family and friends.

Ms. Panghali was one of three Indo-Canadian women attacked in a two-week period. Two of those attacks were fatal.

Indira Prahst, a sociology professor at Langara College who's hosted forums on violence against South Asian women, said the situation has improved since 2006. She said the awareness campaigns have shown younger women there's nothing wrong with leaving a troubled relationship.

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