No weapon has been found two years after the fatal beating of a Muslim woman in her California home sparked fears that it was a hate crime, but prosecutors told jurors Tuesday that other evidence proves her husband was the killer.
Defendant Kassim Alhimidi wailed during opening statements at his murder trial, prompting a judge to briefly halt the proceedings.
Alhimidi is accused of killing his 32-year-old wife Shaima Alawadi on March 21, 2012, in El Cajon, a San Diego suburb that is home to one of the largest enclaves of Iraqi immigrants in the U.S.
Alhimidi, 49, has pleaded not guilty in the case that evolved from being a suspected hate crime to one about a family that struggled while 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, street camera footage and information from the couple's eldest daughter about her parents' troubled marriage led police to charge Alhimidi. Lab tests found 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.
Alhimidi's daughter, 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.
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, who had been at odds with her Muslim parents over dating a Christian boy.
Gilliland said no blood or shards of glass from the shattered door were found on Alhimidi.
Gilliland pointed out that Alhimidi, who is not fluent in English, has cooperated with authorities, even returning early from Iraq, where he buried his wife. He also 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.