This much almost all parties seemed to agree on. Shriya Patel took a taxi on a spring morning in 2012, stopped at a gas station to fill a canister with petrol, and picked up candle-sticks, masking tape, and other supplies at a WalMart. Then she returned home, detached the smoke alarms, covered up the water sprinklers, and dousing her husband Bimal Patel with petrol as he lolled in the bathtub, set the place on fire.
After fighting for his life, he died several weeks later despite high-end care.
According to the prosecution, Shriya, who had been in the US for just a week at that point, having joined her Indian-American husband a year after an arranged marriage in India, cold-bloodedly planned his murder. She had married him reluctantly, only to make jealous another man in Mumbai to whom she gave up her virginity, Chelsea Schwierking, an American witness testified in court. Schwierking and her husband, who was Bimal’s schoolmate at Texas Tech, had attended the marriage in India, and she had heard this from Shriya herself during the wedding.
Shriya was also said to be disappointed with her husband’s station in life; she had expected to arrive at a wealthy PIO husband’s home. Instead, she came to a young man struggling to make ends meet in a dead end job, even through his motel-owning family was relatively wealthy. So, according to the defense, the Amarillo, Texas-born Indian-American persuaded her to help him commit suicide, and as a “dutiful” Indian wife, she obliged. He had written depressed text messages to friends in the days before his death, including “I feel like I am going to snap” and “I feel weighted down like a branch on a tree being pulled down”.
Several intriguing bits of testimony was produced from both sides, none of which fully accounted for the bizarre episode that resulted in the death of a 29-year old in the prime of life, who from accounts of prosecution witnesses, was a happy-go-lucky guy who worked enthusiastically to bring his wife to the US. He even drew up a list of things he needed to do for her (“Buy Shriya cellphone” read one task). He was not the kind to kill himself, and even if he did, he did not need his wife’s help, much less implicate her. Police reports also showed that he had tried to beat down the bathroom door which had been locked from outside after Shriya started the fire. “Why would she do this to me?” first witnesses quoted Bimal Patel as saying.
But the defense punched many holes in the murder theory. Shriya had been in the country for only a week and hardly knew her way around. Contrary to the prosecution’s efforts to show her has as a London-educated sophisticate, she was actually from a working class Gujarati family whose father had been a factory worker in Dubai. The taxi-driver who picked her up on the morning of the incident said she asked him to take her to a police station more than once before changing her mind. And most bafflingly, autopsy reports showed that Bimal Patel’s nose had been stuffed with cotton balls; they were singed, so they had been inserted before he died in the fire.
After nearly ten hours of deliberation, a Texas jury on Tuesday sentenced Shriya to 20 years in prison for first-degree arson that led to Bimal Patel’s death, rejecting the prosecution case for capital murder. She has already been in prison for two years and will be eligible for parole in three more, upon which she may be deported to India.