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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Mother Claims Insanity in Attempted-Drownings Case

September 19, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An immigrant Indian woman who authorities say tried to drown her two children earlier this year at Channel Islands Harbor is now claiming she was insane at the time.

Narinder Virk, a 40-year-old homemaker with a history of marital problems, was to stand trial today on charges of attempted murder. But the trial was postponed last week after Virk pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Her lawyer says Virk was abused by her husband and snapped after he boarded a plane for India with plans to divorce her.

"I think that was just the last straw, as they say," said Deputy Public Defender Christina Briles. "It seemed pretty clear that she suffered a breakdown after a great deal of tension because of the abuse."

Virk is one of four Ventura County women who have raised domestic abuse as a defense to serious felony charges in the past year.

In July, homemaker Socorro "Cora" Caro amended her not-guilty plea to include an insanity defense in the Nov. 22 shooting deaths of her three oldest sons. Her lawyer said she has no memory of the night and is suffering from acute depression.

Murder defendant Gabriela Hernandez tried to raise a battered-woman's defense in the 1996 slaying of her daughter, Joselin, but a judge barred expert testimony on the subject. An appellate court overturned the murder conviction last month, however, finding the evidence should have been allowed.

And Gladis Soto was convicted earlier this year of first-degree murder for fatally shooting her husband Feb. 20, 1999, despite defense evidence that she had been raped and battered by him.

For Virk, the abuse allegations are paired with unusual cultural factors.

Virk lived with her husband, Santokh, and their two children, ages 6 and 9, in a condominium complex on Anchor Avenue in Port Hueneme. The couple moved to the United States about eight years ago and had been in Port Hueneme for two years.

During that time, Briles said, Virk, who can neither read nor write, was beaten, abandoned and neglected and was unable to seek help because of language and cultural barriers. Virk's supporters say marriage is sacred in the Sikh religion, and when Virk's husband left for India to seek a divorce, she felt helpless, shamed and suicidal.

In the coming weeks, Ventura County Superior Court-appointed psychiatrists will evaluate Virk and offer opinions on whether she was suffering a mental disorder at the time of the alleged crimes. Deputy Dist. Atty. Adam Pearlman said the question of Virk's sanity will come down to whether she understood the nature of her actions.

Under state law, a defendant cannot be held responsible for a crime if, because of a mental defect, the person was unable to understand the difference between right and wrong.

Prosecutors allege that Virk intentionally pushed her 6-year-old daughter, Harpreet, and 9-year-old son, Sonny, off a boat dock Jan. 12 and held them under water.

Sonny testified at a preliminary hearing that he was able to paddle away from his mother and cry for help. A few minutes later, he said, a man pulled the mother and children back onto the boat dock.

Brian Wiggins, a harbor resident and former lifeguard, said he was awakened by the boy's cries and raced to the dock in time to pull them out of the cold water.

The children are now living with their father. Santokh Virk filed for divorce in Ventura County Superior Court in March and is fighting for sole custody of the children.

Meanwhile, Narinder Virk's arrest has galvanized Indian organizations and Sikh temples throughout Southern California. Supporters believe cultural factors lie at the heart of the case and have raised more than $250,000 to assist the defendant, who is being held in Ventura County Jail in lieu of $500,000 bail.

Virk's trial date is now set for Jan. 26. If a jury finds she committed attempted murder or attempted manslaughter, the same panel would decide whether she was sane at the time. If convicted and found insane, Virk would be sent to a state mental hospital instead of prison.

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