A Travis County judge on Tuesday sentenced Shriya Patel to 20 years in prison after she was convicted of igniting a flash fire that took the life of her husband in April 2012.
District Judge David Crain accepted the punishment that a jury of 10 women and two men recommended following a total of nine hours of deliberations over two days.
Patel, a 27-year-old woman from India, had been on trial for capital murder in the killing of Bimal Patel, 29. She was found guilty Monday of the lesser first-degree felony of arson causing death and had been facing a penalty of five years to life in prison or probation.
She will be given credit for almost two years of incarceration served since the deadly incident and will thus be eligible for parole in three years. Upon release on community supervision, she would then face deportation.
In the courtroom Tuesday, she stared straight ahead as the verdict was read, a mustard-colored sari around her shoulders.
As her trial unfolded over the past two weeks, a small audience had filled the benches, composed of more than a dozen of Bimal Patel’s friends and a handful of members from the Hindu community in Austin, some of whom said they had helped Shriya Patel navigate through the criminal justice process in the United States.
But on Tuesday, supporters and loved ones from both sides of the case were largely absent. After the jury’s decision was read, a victim services counselor read an impact statement to Shriya Patel from a close friend of Bimal Patel who took the stand last week.
In the letter, Chelsea Schwierking told Shriya Patel that her eventual freedom had been paid for in lies. “May you never know love the way he was loved by his family and friends,” she wrote.
Throughout the testimony, assistant district attorneys Jim Young and David Levingston had argued that Shriya Patel had been unhappy in her marriage to Bimal Patel. They said she had lured him into the bathroom for a massage, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.
But defense lawyers Jackie Wood and Joe James Sawyer contended Shriya Patel had only been guilty of assisting her husband in committing suicide.
Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Wood said the case was a challenging one to try, given the cultural, geographical and language barriers. She said she believed the state had not pushed for enough testing and collection of physical evidence in the investigation and that it had filled holes in its case with misinformation, such as that Shriya Patel had been raised in an upper-class family.
Shriya Patel, who moved to the United States a week before the incident after having married Bimal Patel about a year before in India, had never been in trouble with the law and had likely not had contact with police in her home country, Wood said.
“She has been kind of lost throughout this whole process,” the lawyer said. “The American justice system is frightening and scary. … She is one of those clients that this is all brand new to her. It’s not something that she has even seen on the TV like most American kids have.”
Prosecutors declined to comment other than to say the state is always pleased when justice is done.
One juror, 24-year-old Stephen Smith, told reporters that serving on the jury had been stressful and difficult, but that it was an important duty.
One of his fellow female jurors had been dropped from the panel this week when Austin police found her to be “emotionally disturbed” downtown and she failed to report for court Monday. But Smith said jurors managed to work through the delay and had eventually come to a consensus, even as there had been people on both ends of the spectrum — some who sought to give Shriya Patel tougher punishment, others who wanted to give her less time.
“Believe me when I say justice was served,” Smith said.