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Long-Delayed Virk Trial Set to Begin

Courts: The woman, accused of trying to drown her children at Channel Islands Harbor, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

June 24, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After more than two years of court delays, an immigrant Indian woman accused of trying to drown her children in Channel Islands Harbor will stand trial this week on charges of attempted murder.

Narinder Virk, 42, is charged with two counts of attempted murder and an allegation that she caused serious injury to her daughter, then 6, by holding the child underwater. Prosecutors say Virk's actions were deliberate and premeditated.

But Deputy Public Defender Cynthia Ellington contends Virk was not capable of carrying out the cold, calculated crime alleged by the district attorney. Virk has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and her trial, estimated to last two weeks, is expected to focus heavily on her troubled marriage, cultural background and mental state at the time of the Jan. 12, 2000, incident.

"The thrust of the defense is she was so extremely mentally disturbed that she could not formulate the mental state for first-degree murder," Ellington said during a break in jury selection last week. "This woman snapped."

Virk was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after an Oxnard resident pulled the fully clothed woman, her daughter and then 9-year-old son out of the freezing cold water.

Prosecutors contend Virk, who lived with her children and husband in Port Hueneme, walked to the harbor late at night, intentionally pushed her children off a boat dock, jumped in and held them underwater.

The boy testified at a preliminary hearing that he was able to paddle away from his mother and cry for help, alerting the neighbor who rescued them. Both children are expected to testify at her trial.

From Virk's first court appearance, her defense lawyers and supporters have argued that the charges against her are overblown. They contend Virk endured years of spousal abuse and reached a breaking point on that night when she found out her husband, Santokh, had returned to India with plans to divorce her. Shame and abandonment contributed to Virk's state of mind, Ellington said, and will be issues in the case.

The trial, delayed for months by legal wrangling and changes of attorneys, has hit a chord with members of the Southern California Sikh community.

Sympathizers who never knew Virk before January 2000 rallied around her, raising the $500,000 bail after her arrest.

"Common criminal or victim of domestic violence?" reads a Web site dedicated to her release fund. "We believe that society needs to help this woman [and her two children], and not throw her heartlessly into the prison with no attempt to understand her plight."

Virk, who has no criminal record, was born in a small farming village in northern India. Her marriage, at age 18, was arranged by her parents and allegedly turned violent after the couple moved to the United States in 1991.

When the family moved to Port Hueneme in 1997, defense attorneys say, Virk's husband left her and the children for months at a time with no money or food. Virk could speak little English, had no job and was illiterate in even her native tongue, Punjabi.

Whether those issues will resonate with jurors remains to be seen. During jury selection last week, Ellington questioned prospective jurors about their views on psychiatry, spousal abuse and the insanity defense.

One woman, a mother with children roughly the same age as Virk's son and daughter, was excused Friday after her voice began to crack with emotion and she told Judge Ken Riley: "I can't even imagine hurting children."

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Simon has not revealed why he believes Virk intentionally tried to kill her children. But he said the evidence would come out once testimony gets underway this week. Opening statements are scheduled to begin today or Tuesday after jury selection is completed.

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