Defendant in double-murder case erupts during trial

As a woman on the witness stand described how she was attacked in a violent rampage that left her husband and daughter dead, the man accused of the crimes erupted in anger in an Orange County courtroom Thursday.

"That's not what happened," Iftekhar Murtaza said, loudly enough to interrupt Leela Dhanak's testimony in the 2007 double-murder case.

Murtaza, 29, is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend's father, Jayprakash Dhanak, 56, and sister, Karishma Dhanak, 20, and attempting to kill Dhanak before setting fire to their Anaheim Hills mansion in 2007.

Dhanak, the ex-girlfriend's mother, was found critically wounded on a neighbor's lawn and was in a coma for weeks. The gasoline-drenched bodies of her husband and daughter were later found smoldering in a secluded spot near UC Irvine.

The outburst prompted three bailiffs to surround Murtaza and drew an admonishment from the judge.

Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals told the defendant to "behave" himself and threatened to have him removed from the court if it happened again.

Prosecutors maintain that Murtaza was motivated to kill after his girlfriend, Shayona Dhanak, broke up with him, saying her Hindu family disapproved of him because he was Muslim. Shayona Dhanak testified earlier in the trial that the cultural differences were just an excuse to break off the relationship.

Authorities said that after she ended the relationship, Murtaza became enraged and enlisted friends to help kill her family, believing that by eliminating them, she would see him as a "white knight" and reunite with him. Authorities said he initially tried to hire professional hit men.

On Thursday, the mother identified Murtaza as one of two attackers she encountered inside her home.

"He had a knife in his hand and had it across my throat like that," Dhanak testified, moving her hand from left to right across her scarred neck.

"He stabbed me on my tummy, on my stomach," she said.

"And then what else did he do?" asked Deputy Dist. Atty. Howard Gundy.

"He hit me on the head and I fell down," she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. "After that I don't remember anything."

During a break, the judge told Murtaza that while he could understand that Dhanak's testimony was upsetting to him, he had to restrain himself.

"The jury saw and heard what happened; I have no idea what their impression of that was," Goethals said.

"It won't happen again," Murtaza said. "Promise."

His attorneys declined to comment on the outburst.

Prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty if Murtaza is convicted. The trial has been slowed when it was decided to first try his alleged accomplices. One was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The second is awaiting a third trial after his first two were declared mistrials.

During his cross-examination, Murtaza's attorney focused on Dhanak's memory and her testimony that it was Murtaza who had put a knife to her throat.

In a June 2007 interview, Dhanak said she heard a knock on the front door and was attacked by two unknown intruders. In an interview two months later, Dhanak said she didn't remember seeing her wounded husband in the house.

But on the witness stand Thursday, Dhanak said she recalled seeing her husband standing by a sink with blood flowing from a head wound when she walked into their home on the night of the attack.

"Today's testimony is different than what you said to the police in August," attorney Doug Myers said, "and very different than what you were saying on June 25."

When asked if she understood that she had suffered some memory problems as a result of the attack, Dhanak said she did.

Dhanak said she was still traumatized and depressed and her memories were foggy during the 2007 interviews, which were only weeks after her husband and daughter were killed. But, she testified in court, her memory got better as her health improved.

"Is there any question in your mind that it was Iftekhar Murtaza that attacked you that night in the fashion that you describe?" Gundy asked her.

"No," Dhanak said in tears. "I don't have any doubt."

Flores writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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