After a long delay, a Maricopa County Superior Court jury will finally decide if a jilted husband killed his Ahwatukee wife 12 years ago either intentionally or by accident during a domestic violence incident as his trial got underway last week.
Avtar Grewal, 44, admits he killed Navneet Kaur, 30, on March 29, 2007, at her home in the 4200 block of East Redwood Lane, during an argument set off by her request for a divorce.
But since Grewal’s arrest two days later at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, the case has centered on his intent, the appropriate charge and the potential sentence.
Grewal won a major concession on April 23, a month or so before the trial began, when prosecutor Juan Martinez asked Judge Dean Fink to drop a death penalty allegation.
Prosecutors had refused to drop the death penalty for years, arguing that Kaur’s death was premeditated and especially cruel, heinous or depraved.
Kaur was strangled to death before her head was placed under water in a bathtub during the murder, according to court records and opening arguments by Martinez and defense attorney Jeffrey Kirchler.
“On March 28, Ms. Kaur told the defendant that she planned to divorce him’’ during a telephone call, according to a prosecution document. “He said he would grant the divorce if she told him that in person.’’
The couple had a long-distance relationship, with Grewal living in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, and Kaur living in her home in Ahwatukee. Kaur had retained ownership of the house after a divorce settlement with her previous husband, the court records said.
Grewal would fly into Phoenix and visit Kaur, but the two “never lived together for any significant period of time.’’
“He flew to Phoenix the next day and killed Ms. Kaur. Immediately after the murder, the defendant took a flight from Phoenix to Newark, N.J. He then purchased a one-way ticket to India and fled the U.S.,’’ the prosecution document said.
When co-workers went looking for Kaur, knowing she was in a bad marriage and wanted to end it, they saw an awful sight.
“Ms. Kaur’s lifeless body was found in the bathroom with her head submerged under water. The defendant had left a note that said, “I killed this selfish bitch, she tortured me for two years and made my life a living hell. Now I will kill myself.’’
Prosecutors used the note as grounds for premeditation and as an argument for the death penalty.
Martinez said during opening arguments that Kaur’s murder was intentional and described how Grewal was a controlling husband who called the victim repeatedly, while defense attorney Jeffrey Kirchler said the death was unintentional.
He had unsuccessfully attempted to get prosecutors to agree to a manslaughter plea bargain, according to the prosecution document.
“He placed his hands on her. He took his hands and wrapped them around her throat,’’ Martinez told the jury. “He continued to choke her, even though she was unconscious. He continued to do that until she died.”
He said Grewal dragged Kaur’s body from another room to the bathroom, leaving a trail of blood. Her head was found under water in the bathtub.
Kirchler sought to put the slaying in a different light during his opening argument, outlining a crime of passion.
During the marital argument, he said Kaur told Grewal, “I want a divorce, it’s over. I slept with someone else since you left, not once but three times.’’
“They started slapping each other. They lost themselves in that moment. He didn’t plan this, he didn’t will this to happen,’’ Kirchler said.
At some point during the argument and slapping incident, “she’s falling to the ground, hitting her head on the table,’’ he said.
In court documents, defense attorneys wrote that Kaur had picked up Grewal at Sky Harbor International Airport earlier that day.
He wrote that when the argument broke out, “Ms. Kaur slapped and kicked Mr. Grewal. He attempted to restrain her and a physical altercation ensued in which Ms. Kaur was grabbed in the neck and suffocated.’’
Kirchler wrote that Kaur and Grewal were married in October 2005, and while they were in a long-distance relationship, “they were neither estranged nor separated’’ on the day Kaur was killed.
The case was delayed by several factors, including a long extradition fight that ended when India turned Grewal over to the FBI on Sept. 13, 2011, after he had spent more than four years at a jail in his native country.
Counting his incarceration in India and the U.S, Grewal has already spent the 12 years in jail since the killing.
Other complications included an argument over a three-ring binder seized from Grewal and a debate over whether Kaur suffered enough during her murder for the case to qualify for the death penalty.
Moments before the opening arguments on June 3, Fink ruled against a defense attempt to introduce evidence that Grewal suffers from autistic spectrum disorder.
Karen Froming, a clinical psychology professor at Palo Alto University, was prepared to testify about Grewal’s “tendency to think in a certain way,’’ and about his “behavioral characteristics.’’
A court document filed by Kirchler gave several examples, including that “Grewal has incredibly rigid thinking and assumes that people are behaving according to how he thinks.’’
The document also said he doesn’t process social situations properly, does not experience relationships in the same manner as others, and strips emotions from his relationships.
But Martinez criticized Kirchler’s tactics as an attempt to improperly influence the jury, in a separate court filing.
“The testimony sought to be introduced represents nothing more than an attempt to improperly bolster the defendant’s credibility and vouch for the truthfulness of his statements,’’ Martinez wrote.