EL CAJON, Calif. – What began as a hate crime investigation two years ago has led to the murder conviction of an Iraqi immigrant, whose wife was found badly beaten with a threatening note labeling her a terrorist.
The verdict delivered Thursday against Kassim Alhimidi, who shook his head and wagged his finger as jurors were polled, spurred more of the drama that has surrounded the case from the start.
His oldest son stood, shouted obscenities and proclaimed his father's innocence before several deputies wrestled him out of the courtroom. Another son also shouted in his father's defense, while the victim's mother said Alhimidi deserved worse, according to the official court translator, Nahla David.
Superior Court Judge William McGrath and the jury cleared the courtroom during the outbursts. After a brief recess, the judge returned and scheduled sentencing for May 15.
Alhimidi faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for the bludgeoning death of his 32-year-old wife, Shaima Alawadi, at their house in El Cajon, home to one of the largest enclaves of Iraqi immigrants in the U.S.
Local and federal investigators initially suspected a hate crime until lab tests determined that a threatening note that read, "This is my country, go back to yours, you terrorist," was a photocopy — possibly of a note found outside the family home a week earlier by one of the couple's five children.
The couple's eldest daughter, then 17, found her mother in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor of their suburban San Diego home in March 2012, 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.
Prosecutors argued Alhimidi lied to police about his troubled marriage and apologized to his wife as she lay dying in a hospital. Defense lawyers said Alhimidi loved his wife, that he was not a violent man, and that he returned from Iraq after burying his wife there.
Prosecutors told the San Diego County jury during a two-week trial that Alhimidi was distraught over his wife's plans to leave him and had urged his children and relatives to get her to stay. Detectives found documents in Alawadi's car indicating she planned to seek a divorce, and the eldest daughter, Fatima, told investigators that her mother wanted to move to Texas to be with her sister.
After the attack, Alhimidi went to the hospital, touched his wife as she lay unconscious in bed, and apologized to her, prosecutor Kurt 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.
The prosecutor read jurors computer messages that the woman had sent to relatives that said: "I do not love him" and "I cannot stand him."
"The relationship was in the tank. It was bad," Mechals told jurors.
The defense argued Alhimidi had no motive for killing his wife and that he loved her dearly. Attorneys said he could have stayed in Iraq after her burial but returned to the U.S. and cooperated with police until he was arrested nearly eight months after the killing.
"This man has never once raised a hand to Shaima," attorney Richard Berkon Jr. told the jury.
Alhimidi gave contradictory statements to police right after the attack because he was afraid he would be blamed for a killing he didn't commit, attorney Douglas Gilliland said.
As for the uncle who said Alhimidi confessed, Gilliland said the man always disliked his client and cultural misunderstandings clouded the truth. 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, he said.
Alawadi left Iraq in the early 1990s after a failed Shiite uprising. She lived in Saudi Arabian refugee camps before coming to the U.S., Imam Husham Al-Husainy of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn, Mich., said after she was killed. Then-Iraq President Saddam Hussein's troops hanged Alawadi's uncle.
The family moved to the Detroit area and later to San Diego.
The jury deliberated less than two days before delivering a verdict that split the family. Alawadi's mother, Rehima Alhussanwi, said she was convinced Alhimidi was the killer.
"In Iraq, normally if he kills her he is supposed to be killed in the same way," she told reporters through David, the translator.
The eldest daughter, Fatima, declined to speak with reporters but her attorney, Ron Rockwell, said she felt "outraged and utterly betrayed" that the defense suggested during the trial that she may have been involved in the killing.
"Although we love our father," Fatima said in a statement read by her attorney, "we also hate what we believe he did."