Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsTrials

Attorneys to Cite Similar Incident in Drowning Case Defense

Courts: Saying cultural values caused woman to try to kill her children, lawyers will recall 1985 episode.

February 17, 2000|GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A desperate woman shamed by her cheating husband drowns her young daughter and son in the ocean before being rescued by two beach-goers as she attempts to take her own life.

She is not Narinder Virk, an Indian immigrant accused of trying to drown her two children last month in Channel Islands Harbor. But as in the first case, Virk's attorneys will argue that their client's culture and traditions influenced her behavior.

In January 1985, Japanese immigrant Fumiko Kimura drowned her infant daughter and 4-year-old son in the ocean off Santa Monica after she learned that her husband had a mistress.

Ultimately, Kimura's attorney convinced prosecutors and the judge that the 33-year-old Tarzana mother had no malicious intent, but wanted only to save her children the shame their father's infidelity brought on the family. The cultural defense helped win Kimura one year in jail and five years' probation in the Los Angeles County case.

Fifteen years later, a similar disgrace apparently drove 39-year-old Virk to the water with her two children, Sonny, 9, and Harpreet, 6, who are expected to take the stand today in Ventura County Superior Court at their mother's preliminary hearing on two counts of attempted murder.

But the same type of arguments that worked for Kimura in Los Angeles County will not necessarily work for Virk in Ventura County, one of the law-and-order bastions of the state, legal experts say.

A child murdered by his mother is an unjustifiable crime by American standards. In the context of cultural or religious beliefs, however, the definition of justice can become blurred and an accused murderer becomes a totem to human frailty.

In Los Angeles County, crowds of supporters filed into the courtroom during Kimura's proceedings, as they have done in Virk's case. They collected thousands of signatures to petition for a lenient sentence and pooled resources to fund her rehabilitation just as Virk's supporters have done.

She was charged with two counts of murder but pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter. In an usual twist, Kimura and her husband stayed together.

Virk's attorney, Christina Briles, argues that like Kimura, Virk was driven to madness by a culture that measured her value by the success of her marriage and threatened to disown her and her children if she failed.

"Her life had value only as it related to others that she served," Briles said. "The female has the complete and total responsibility for the success of the marriage."

Cultural defense is a centuries-old legal argument that has gained popularity in the last 20 years, said cultural defense expert Alison Dundes Renteln, a University of Southern California political science professor. But the argument is difficult to sell to judges and juries in suburban communities, like Ventura County, with less diverse populations and more conformist lifestyle views than urban communities, said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.

"Ventura juries are notoriously tough juries," she said. "I think it's a real uphill battle, as would be, frankly, in Orange County. They're reluctant to buy a defense like this, because they don't relate to the culture."

Like Virk, Kimura lived an isolated life with her two children. She spoke little English and didn't work outside the home. Her next-door neighbor was her only friend. When her husband's mistress showed up at her door one day to confess the affair, Kimura decided to take her own life and kill her children, an act known as oya-ko shinju, a Japanese term for parent-child suicide.

"In her own deranged state of mind, what she was doing was an act of love to her children," Gerald Klausner, Kimura's attorney, said. "There is the concept of saving face in the Japanese culture that runs very deep. [Suicide] is kind of a polite thing to do when you've soiled society somehow."

Klausner said he didn't emphasize Kimura's traditions as a defense during the 1986 trial, but argued that she went temporarily insane with grief and shame.

"Culture can explain states of mind," he said. "But murder is murder."

Virk is from a province in northern India, Punjab, which translated means "Land of the Five Rivers," and her Sikh faith considers water a symbol of purification. But there are no parent-child suicide rituals in Indian culture that explain Virk's predawn trip to the water with her two children Jan. 12, Sikhs say.

Her behavior is considered a tragic anomaly within the close-knit Indian community.

Virk came from a small farming village called Kalsingha and at age 18 married Sintokh Singh Virk, a man chosen by her great-grandfather, the village elder.

*

She wasn't taught to read or write and spoke no English.

The Virks lived together in India from 1978 to 1984 and then Sintokh moved to Northridge to work, while Narinder stayed with relatives. Briles said divorce documents suggest that Sintokh married another woman for citizenship in 1984 and then filed for divorce two years later in Van Nuys Superior Court.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|