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No evidence to convict, Panghali defence says

The second-degree murder trial of Mukhtiar Panghali shown here continues in B.C. Supreme Court, Nov, 2010.

Felicity Don / The Globe and Mail/Felicity Don / The Globe and Mail

The court of public opinion may have convicted Mukhtiar Panghali of killing his pregnant wife, but the court of law must recognize there's no physical evidence he's a murderer, the man's lawyer said Friday.

Michael Tammen, Mr. Panghali's lawyer, used his closing argument to argue the Crown's case against his client was littered with assumptions and light on facts. The Crown said in its final submission on Thursday that Mr. Panghali feigned concern after his wife first disappeared and did his best to fend off probing questions from friends and police.

But Mr. Tammen disagreed with that theory and told the court Mr. Panghali's actions were consistent with that of a concerned husband. He said there was nothing to suggest Mr. Panghali killed his wife, or even had a motive to do so.

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"There is simply no case of second-degree murder here," Mr. Tammen said.

Mr. Panghali was charged after his wife's charred corpse was found near a Delta waterway on Oct. 23, 2006. Manjit Panghali, an elementary school teacher, was four to five months pregnant. The couple also had a daughter who was in preschool when her mother died.

Ms. Panghali's killing was one of three attacks on Indo-Canadian women in B.C. in a two-week period. Two of those incidents were fatal.

Mr. Panghali's B.C. Supreme Court trial began last month in New Westminster. Mr. Tammen did not call any witnesses and Mr. Panghali did not testify.

The judge, who tried the case without a jury, reserved her decision Friday. She scheduled a court date for Jan. 14 but cautioned she might postpone the ruling if it takes her long to review all of the evidence.

In its closing argument, the Crown linked a number of facts and inconsistencies that it said proved Mr. Panghali killed his wife: the fact that he allegedly used his wife's cellphone after she disappeared, and didn't call police when she first failed to return home.

The Crown also presented surveillance footage that it said showed Mr. Panghali buying a lighter and newspaper the night his wife vanished. Mr. Panghali had said he never left home that evening.

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But whereas the Crown said the circumstantial facts made up a "brick wall" of evidence, Mr. Tammen said it was more like a "house of cards."

"There is no rendition of facts on what happened. It's just not there. The absence is staggering," he said.

He said it could not be proved the man in the gas station was Mr. Panghali. He said witnesses who testified to that effect were biased and couldn't provide reasons to support their viewpoints.

Mr. Tammen said the man in the footage could have been anyone with a turban, beard and average build. (Mr. Panghali has since shaved off his beard and no longer wears a turban.) The lawyer added that the man in the gas station appeared to wear his turban in a different style than Mr. Panghali used to.

Mr. Tammen also took offence with the Crown's theory that his client called B.C. Ambulance Service the night his wife disappeared to create the appearance he was concerned. The Crown accused Mr. Panghali of making the call to the ambulance service because he knew they wouldn't come to his home, while the police might.

But Mr. Tammen said the call was a sign his client was genuinely worried about his wife's well-being, and feared she might have been in a car accident or injured in some other capacity.

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Mr. Tammen said it wasn't the first time Ms. Panghali failed to return home. She spent at least one night at a hotel, away from her husband. Mr. Tammen argued that that explained his client's reluctance to call police, since his wife could have come home the next day.

The lawyer recounted testimony from a police officer, who said the husband is always a suspect when his wife disappears. Mr. Tammen added it's fortunate Mr. Panghali isn't being tried in the court of public opinion.

Mr. Tammen did not at any point mention who might have killed Ms. Panghali.

"This case is not about attempting to answer this question," he said.

Mr. Panghali sat in the courtroom throughout the closing argument but said nothing, aside from brief chats with counsel.

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