SANTA ANA, Calif. – A tearful Leela Dhanak broke down on the stand Thursday as she recounted for jurors how when she goes to sleep six years after a fiery attack on her family she can still hear her husband screaming as he did the last time she saw him before he was murdered.
Under cross-examination, Dhanak told the Orange County courtroom that she was attacked when she came home in May 2007, fell unconscious and woke up from a coma three weeks later to discover her home had been burned and her husband and elder daughter killed.
"I do hear him screaming, crying. In my sleep I do hear," Dhanak testified during the trial of her younger daughter's ex-boyfriend Iftekhar Murtaza on charges of carrying out the fatal attack.
She then broke down, reached for a tissue, and the court took an early recess for lunch. Her testimony is scheduled to resume Thursday afternoon.
Dhanak's testimony came in the trial of now 29-year-old Murtaza, who prosecutors say carried out the attack on the family in an ill-conceived plot to reunite with his then-college freshman girlfriend Shayona Dhanak after she blamed their breakup on differences between her Hindu family and his Muslim faith.
Murtaza is charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances of burglary and kidnapping, attempted murder and conspiracy. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Two of Murtaza's friends have been convicted in the killings and one of them has been sentenced to life in prison.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals on Thursday reprimanded Murtaza for speaking out during Dhanak's testimony and warned he might be removed from the courtroom if it happened again.
Murtaza assured Goethals it would not.
Murtaza had refuted Dhanak's account while she testified about how he and another man grabbed her and slit her throat, said prosecutor Howard Gundy.
Under cross-examination, Dhanak conceded her memory of exactly what happened during the attack has varied since the incident.
Dhanak told the court her younger daughter had dated Murtaza but told her she didn't have deep feelings for him. As a mother, she said she wished her daughter had dated someone of Indian heritage, like her family, but above all wanted her to concentrate on her studies at University of California, Irvine.
Dhanak said she didn't particularly like Murtaza, but had her daughter truly loved him, she would have supported the young couple.
"She was too young to fall in love with any guys," she told the court.