The fate of Shriya Patel, charged with intentionally igniting a fiery blast that consumed her husband, remains in the hands of a Travis County jury.The 27-year-old woman, a native of India, is facing an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted of capital murder in the April 2012 incident that killed 29-year-old Bimal Patel. District Judge David Crain also has allowed jurors to consider the lesser offense of first-degree arson, which carries a penalty of five years to life in prison.
After eight hours of deliberations Friday, jurors were told they could go home and continue working on the case Monday morning.
In court, assistant district attorneys Jim Young and David Levingston argued that Shriya Patel had been unhappy in her arranged marriage to Bimal Patel. The prosecutors said she lured him into the bathtub for a massage, doused him with gasoline and sparked an explosion at their North Austin apartment that left him so severely injured he died nearly four months later.
Defense lawyers Jackie Wood and Joe James Sawyer contended he had committed suicide and forced his subservient wife to help.
The grisly case stunned even seasoned investigators and has drawn wide community attention for its degree of violence. In a trial that unfolded this week, jurors heard and saw harrowing descriptions from the crime scene, and they received a rare glimpse into Southeast Asian customs and the pressures of biculturalism.
Police officers and emergency responders testified that they were called about 9:15 p.m. on April 17, 2012, to the Camden Huntingdon apartments at 12349 Metric Blvd. Some witnesses said they saw his body still smoldering and that he had been screaming, “Why would she do this?”
Prosecutors played security camera footage that captured Shriya Patel alone inside a Wal-Mart as she purchased what a receipt showed to be two candlesticks, nylon rope and masking tape. Another video aired for jurors showed she had arrived at a nearby gas station in a taxi and purchased gasoline in a red gas can.
Crime scene specialists said the smoke detector in the apartment had been detached and was sitting near a kitchen counter; the sprinklers in the apartment had been wrapped in blue and dark cloth that matched a sari owned by Shriya Patel and with plastic bags that had her fingerprints.
One arson investigator with the Austin Fire Department told jurors that based on Bimal Patel’s injuries and the soot and burn patterns found at the scene, it was unlikely he had set himself on fire. Instead, Capt. Andrew Reardon testified, the physical evidence indicated he had been lying in a bathtub when his wife splashed him with gasoline from a disposable cup and quickly shut him inside.
Marks on a cracked door showed he had tried to push or kick his way out, witnesses said.
In closing arguments Friday, Young said Shriya Patel had studied in London and lived in Dubai. She had been used to an upper-class lifestyle and had been disappointed to arrive in the United States to find that Bimal Patel had been laid off from a dead-end telemarketing job, was struggling to pay his rent and did not have the wealth of his successful hotelier father and uncles.
She had not wanted to wed him in the first place, Young told jurors, alluding to testimony from Bimal Patel’s friend, who said Shriya Patel had admitted she was only getting married to make another lover jealous.
“That was her motive,” Young told jurors. “Why she decided to kill him in this extremely horrible way? I have no idea. I have no clue.”
But Wood portrayed Shriya Patel as an obedient wife who had only been in the country five days and had been wholly dependent upon her husband. She told jurors Bimal Patel had been an unhappy man under intense cultural and familial pressures to find a wife and a stable career. He had planned to kill himself, she told jurors, and forced his wife to buy the materials and aid him in covering up the sprinklers and detaching the smoke detector.
The attorney said it did not make sense that a man about to receive a sensual massage would be found as Bimal Patel had — with cotton balls clogging his nostrils — and suggested that he had asked Shriya Patel, who had escaped the flames unsinged, to hand him a drenched towel with gasoline inside a white bucket, both of which investigators collected outside the bathroom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Shriya Patel is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of assisting in the suicide of her husband,” Wood said. Not capital murder, she said.
Still, Young questioned whether Bimal Patel, an “All-American guy” who had been born and raised just outside Amarillo, would have chosen to die by fire. The young man had been in the high school marching band and graduated from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where he also helped start a small cycling event for charity dubbed the Tour de Tech Terrace.
On the stand, two of his close friends, Jake and Chelsea Schwierking, told jurors he had been elated to have Shriya Patel come live with him after a year of working through the bureaucratic paperwork. He seemed to genuinely love her, they said.