EL CAJON, Calif. – An Iraqi man accused of killing his Muslim wife in their California home in what initially appeared to be a hate crime lied to police about his whereabouts on that fateful day and his troubled marriage, prosecutors say.
But defense lawyers say Kassim Alhimidi, who does not speak English, initially gave police contradictory statements about his marriage because he was distraught about Shaima Alawadi's fatal beating and was afraid he could be accused of a crime he didn't commit. They pointed out that no blood, fingerprints or DNA has been found that links him to the murder, and his wife, who was contemplating divorce, also had problems with their teenage daughter, who was dating a Christian boy.
Alhimidi sobbed loudly during the opening of his trial Tuesday when the prosecution played a recording of the 911 call from their eldest daughter on March 21, 2012, to report that she had found her mother in a pool of blood in their kitchen area. At one point, Alhimidi dropped his head to the table, shaking and crying out in Arabic. The judge halted the proceedings briefly and asked Alhimidi through an interpreter to use a cloth to muffle the sounds, so jurors could hear.
Alhimidi, 49, has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge for the death of his 32-year-old wife at their home in El Cajon, a San Diego suburb that is home to one of the largest enclaves of Iraqi immigrants in the U.S.
The case sparked international condemnation when it was a suspected hate crime, but lawyers on both sides focused their opening statements on the struggles of a family trying to straddle two cultures.
Prosecutor Kurt Mechals told jurors that local and federal police initially investigated the bludgeoning as a hate crime after a note was found near the body that read: "This is my country, go back to yours, you terrorist."
However, lab tests determined the note was a photocopy — possibly of a note found outside the family home a week earlier by one of the couple's five children.
Detectives also found documents in Alawadi's car indicating she planned to seek a divorce. He had told police they had a good relationship, but his eldest daughter, Fatima, told officials her mother wanted to end her marriage and move to Texas, where her sister lives.
Fatima, who was then 17, is expected to take the stand at the trial in San Diego County Superior Court in El Cajon.
Alawadi, who wore a headscarf, was found by Fatima in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor with her body tangled in a computer cord and desk chair. She had multiple skull fractures from blunt force and died two days after the attack. A sliding glass door was shattered.
"To this day, we still don't know what the object was," Mechals told jurors.
However, a medical examiner is expected to testify that it appeared Alawadi was beaten with a tire iron, Mechals said.
Defense Attorney Douglas Gilliland said the prosecution has no solid evidence and instead based its case on interpretations of blood stains on the floor, street camera footage tracking Alhimidi's van, and information from the couple's daughter, Fatima.
Gilliland said no blood or shards of glass from the shattered door were found on Alhimidi, who returned early from Iraq after burying Alawadi so he could cooperate fully with police.
Gilliland said Fatima has given conflicting reports, saying at first that she saw an intruder and later that she only saw her mother bleeding on the floor when she came downstairs.
Mechals described Alhimidi as a man who was distraught over his wife's plan to leave him and had urged his children and relatives to get her to stay.
After the attack, Alhimidi went to the hospital, touched his wife as she lay unconscious in bed, and apologized to her, Mechals said. An uncle of the children who was present told authorities that Alhimidi then turned to him and said that if his wife woke up, she might try to say that he had attacked her.
"If Shaima Alawadi did wake up, she would have said he did this to her, because he did," Mechals told jurors.
Gilliland countered that the uncle always disliked Alhimidi, and cultural misunderstandings have clouded the truth. The defense lawyer said Muslims often apologize to loved ones who are dying for all the things that they did or didn't do for them in their lives. In U.S. courts, that can be seen as an admission of guilt, he said.
"It doesn't translate," Gilliland told jurors.
Prosecutors say camera footage indicates that Alhimidi might have driven a short distance from home on the day of the attack and parked his car — contradicting his story to investigators that he had gone for a drive to relax.
The footage shows a person getting out of a parked red car resembling Alhimidi's vehicle around the corner from the home and then walking back to the vehicle an hour later.