EL CAJON, California (AP) — Two years after the fatal beating of a Muslim woman in her California home sparked fears it was a hate crime, prosecutors told jurors Tuesday that her Iraqi husband turned out to be the killer, lying to police about his troubled marriage and apologizing to his wife as she lay dying in a hospital.
Defendant Kassim Alhimidi sobbed loudly during opening statements at his murder trial when prosecutors played a recording of the emergency call from their eldest daughter reporting she had found her mother in a pool of blood. At one point, Alhimidi dropped his head to the table, shaking and crying out in Arabic. The judge briefly halted the proceedings and asked Alhimidi through an interpreter to use a cloth to muffle the sounds, so jurors could hear.
Alhimidi, 49, has pleaded not guilty in the 2012 death of his 32-year-old wife, Shaima Alawadi, at their home in El Cajon, a San Diego suburb that is home to one of the largest enclaves of Iraqi immigrants in the U.S.
Defense lawyers said authorities found no blood on Alhimidi, who returned from Iraq after burying his wife and fully cooperated with police. His attorney, Douglas Gilliland, said his client gave contradictory statements to police right after the attack because he was afraid he would be blamed for a killing he didn't commit.
The case drew international condemnation when it was suspected as a hate crime, but it became about the struggles of a family trying to straddle two cultures, reflected in the opening statements of lawyers on both sides.
Prosecutor Kurt Mechals told jurors that local and federal police initially investigated the bludgeoning as a hate crime after a note was found near the body that read: "This is my country, go back to yours, you terrorist."
However, lab tests determined the note was a photocopy — possibly of a note found outside the family home a week earlier by one of the couple's five children.
Detectives also found documents in Alawadi's car indicating she planned to seek a divorce. Her husband had told police they had a good relationship, but his eldest daughter, Fatima, told officials that her mother wanted to end her marriage and move to Texas, where her sister lives.
Fatima, who was then 17, is expected to take the stand at the trial in San Diego County Superior Court in El Cajon.
Fatima found her mother, who wore a headscarf, in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor on March 21, 2012, her body tangled in a computer cord and desk chair. She had multiple skull fractures from blunt force and died two days after the attack. A sliding glass door was shattered at the home.
No murder weapon has been found, but a medical examiner is expected to testify that it appeared Alawadi was beaten with a tire iron, Mechals said.
Gilliland said the prosecution has no solid evidence and instead based its case on interpretations of blood stains on the floor, street camera footage tracking Alhimidi's van and information from Fatima, who had been at odds with her Muslim parents over dating a Christian boy.
Gilliland said Fatima has given conflicting reports, saying at first that she saw an intruder and later that she only saw her mother bleeding on the floor when she came downstairs.
Mechals described Alhimidi as a man who was distraught over his wife's plan to leave him and had urged his children and relatives to get her to stay.
After the attack, Alhimidi went to the hospital, touched his wife as she lay unconscious in bed, and apologized to her, Mechals said. An uncle of the children who was present told authorities that Alhimidi then turned to him and said that if his wife woke up, she might try to say that he had attacked her.
Gilliland countered that the uncle always disliked Alhimidi and cultural misunderstandings have clouded the truth. The defense lawyer said Muslims often apologize to loved ones who are dying for all the things that they did or didn't do for them in their lives. In U.S. courts, that can be seen as an admission of guilt, he said.
"It doesn't translate," Gilliland told jurors.
Prosecutors say camera footage indicates that Alhimidi might have driven a short distance from home on the day of the attack and parked his car — contradicting his story to investigators that he had gone for a drive to relax.
The footage shows a person getting out of a parked red car resembling Alhimidi's vehicle around the corner from the home and then walking back to the vehicle an hour later.