SANTA ANA – A man convicted of killing his former girlfriend’s sister and father took the witness stand Tuesday and begged the jury to get to know him before making a decision on whether he should face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Iftekhar Murtaza, 29, of Van Nuys looked at the jury of six men and six women and said he wished they got to know him as a human being before they decide if he should get the death penalty for killing Shayona Dhanak’s father, Jayprakash Dhanak, 56, and her older sister, Karishma Dhanak, 20, and for attempting to kill her mother because he viewed them as obstacles to the relationship. Prosecutors said he went on to set her father and sister’s bodies on fire 2 miles from Shayona’s UC Irvine dorm room.
“Ultimately, you guys are deciding my whole life. You guys are going to put me away forever,” Murtaza told the jury in Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals’ courtroom during the penalty phase of the trial, which began last week.
Murtaza testified his defense lawyers told him not to take the stand, but said he felt the Dhanak family deserved to hear the truth.
“I didn’t kill these people. I did not kill them. I didn’t kill any of them,” Murtaza said as he looked at the jurors. “I swear on my mother’s life I didn’t kill any of them.”
Murtaza said he doesn’t believe in hitting women.
“You guys made my hands red and put a knife in my hand and had me stab and slice two females. I didn’t do that. I ran like a coward,” Murtaza said as he became emotional.
During the trial, Murtaza admitted that he was at the Dhanak home the night of May 21, 2007, when Shayona’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.
“If I could go back in time, I probably would jump in, but maybe then I wouldn’t be here today,” Murtaza said.
Murtaza said there was evidence that was not introduced during the trial that could have set him free, including threats his parents received in April and records from MySpace that matched the user identification of co-defendant Charles Murphy Jr. that would have proved the messages were authentic.
“You guys got to see none of it,” Murtaza said. “Wouldn’t you guys like to see it?”
During the trial, Murtaza’s attorney Doug Myers introduced two social media messages said to have been sent by Murphy to Murtaza sometime the day after the killings. In essence, Murphy wrote that Murtaza ran out on him and the other assailant who did the killings despite Murtaza telling them not to hurt them physically and warned Murtaza that ratting on them would have repercussions for him and his parents.
But Deputy District Attorney Howard Gundy countered the new documents were not recovered by law enforcement and the only way to authenticate them was to take Murtaza’s word for it.
As Murtaza sat on the witness stand Tuesday afternoon, he looked at his parents and holding back tears said, “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry, Dad,” as his parents wept.
He then looked at Shayona’s mother and said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Dhanak. I hope in the future you realize the truth.”
On Tuesday, the jury also heard testimony from Murtaza’s parents, who became emotional as they testified they loved their son.
On cross-examination, Murtaza’s father, Sekender Murtaza admitted he lied to a police detective about not knowing the seats in his minivan were missing. The minivan was used to kill Shayona’s father and sister, prosecutors said.
“I told a lie to save my child, and I suspected that some problem might be there,” Sekender Murtaza said through an interpreter speaking Bengali.
Maryam Vegum Murtaza told the jury she wanted her son to live.
“He is my life,” she said. “I wish he lives, and he lives with me.”
But Gundy in his closing arguments told the jury Iftekhar Murtaza deserved the harshest penalty for the brutal and horrid crimes he committed.
Closing arguments will continue today, and jury deliberations on whether Murtaza will face death will likely begin this week.
Register staff writer Larry Welborn contributed to this report.
By DENISSE SALAZAR / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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