SANTA ANA – The former girlfriend of a man convicted of killing her father and sister and setting their bodies on fire testified Monday that she has to be strong for her mother, who was beaten, stabbed and burned but survived the 2007 attack.
While her mother was in a coma, Shayona Dhanak, then 18, planned the funeral of her father, Jayprakash Dhanak, 56, and older sister Karishma, 20.
“I picked outfits for the bodies … and I saw the bodies myself,” Shayona Dhanak said, stifling cries. “I tried holding on to this ray of hope that my mom would wake up for the services but she was still in a coma.”
A jury of six men and six women last month also found Iftekhar Murtaza, 29, of Van Nuys guilty of attempting to kill Shayona’s mother. The attack left Leela Dhanak in a coma for three weeks, but she suffered nerve damage that affects her balance and ability to walk.
“She’s been through things I don’t even understand,” said Shayona Dhanak, now 24.
The same jury in Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethal’s courtroom must decide if Murtaza should face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole in the penalty phase of the trial that started Monday with opening statements.
Deputy District Attorney Howard Gundy told the jury Jayprakash Dhanak was a good father and Karishma Dhanak was a good daughter, and they had a very strong, loving family.
“We are just trying to show what a loss it was to the community and this family to have Jay and Karishma so swiftly taken from this earth,” Gundy said.
Leela Dhanak told the jury Karishma was a “very fun, loving girl” who had achieved her goal of being accepted to UCLA. She recalled getting a call from Karishma asking her to rush home from work. When she got home, she noticed flowers and a card on the dining room table. The card said Karishma had been accepted to UCLA.
“I screamed,” Leela Dhanak said. “She gave me a big hug, and we celebrated.”
Leela Dhanak also told jurors her husband, who she married in 1978, was a “very good father” and had a strong bond with his daughters.
Defense attorney Julie Swain told the jury in her opening statement to consider the facts and evidence presented during the trial of Murtaza.
“What led to May 21, 2007?” Swain asked. “How do we explain his reaction to the loss of Shayona?”
Swain asked jurors to consider whether life without the possibility of parole was sufficient punishment and urged them to listen to the evidence.
Gundy argued that Murtaza blamed the Dhanak family for breaking up his relationship in 2007 with Shayona Dhanak because he is Muslim and they were Hindu.
Gundy insisted that Murtaza was obsessed with Shayona Dhanak and killed her family in a desperate bid to get her back.
Murtaza, however, testified that while he spoke to many people about wanting Dhanak’s parents dead, he never meant it literally.
He admitted that he was at the Dhanak home when Shayona Dhanak’s father and sister were beaten and abducted. But he testified that the assaults were carried out by two other men for money while he panicked and fled on foot.
Karishma and Jayprakash Dhanak were kidnapped and their Anaheim Hills home was set on fire using gasoline before the assailants fled in a van with them, leaving Leela Dhanak beaten, stabbed and burned.
Authorities found the bodies of the father and daughter about five hours later at Mason Regional Park in Irvine. Both had been doused with gasoline and set ablaze near a dirt path about 2 miles from where Shayona Dhanak slept in her dorm room at UC Irvine.
This is the fifth death-penalty trial in Orange County this year.
The penalty phase of the trial will continue Wednesday.
By DENISSE SALAZAR / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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