"Train wreck" defense rests
A man whose efforts to defend himself against double homicide charges have been called a "train wreck" tried one last time yesterday to...
Seattle Times staff reporter
A man whose efforts to defend himself against double homicide charges have been called a "train wreck" tried one last time yesterday to convince a jury he did not kill his parents.
Wearing dark slacks and a red tie, Neelesh Phadnis repeatedly perched the reading glasses he'd borrowed from the judge on his forehead and looked at the men and women inside the jury box.
"You guys," he said during closing arguments, "I mean, I hope you guys are sharp. I mean, I want to have children. I mean, I want to fall in love with a female. I want to have a happy life. I mean, my life is on the line here. I hope you understand that."
Phadnis, 24, is accused of fatally shooting his father and mother, Ravindra, 53, and Surekha Phadnis, 49, on Aug. 24, 2002, in the family's Avon Court home in Kent.
Phadnis, who has no legal training, insisted on defending himself against the two aggravated first-degree murder charges despite warnings from King County Superior Court Judge Helen Halpert and his former attorneys. He opted to act as his own attorney, he said, because he had "issues" with all four public defenders assigned to him.
David Roberson, Phadnis' most recent public defender who was assigned as standby counsel, said the trial has been a tragedy.
"It's a shame because he has no idea what he is doing, and there is obviously something wrong with him," said Roberson. "What can I say? It's not fun. It's like watching a train wreck."
Nevertheless, dozens of attorneys and other spectators have sat in on the two-week trial. "I've never seen anything like this," said one courtroom regular.
Phadnis claims he was kidnapped and tortured for three days by a gang of 400-pound Samoans who eventually killed his parents in front of him. At one point he tried to keep prosecutors from showing the jury a picture of one of his father's handguns by saying, "Your honor, that's not even the murder weapon," which implied that he had personal knowledge about the gun that was used in the killings.
Another time, Phadnis put his finger in his mouth, like a gag, to show jurors how he was supposedly silenced by the Samoan gang. He then proceeded to talk while his voice was muffled, making it difficult for jurors to understand him.
The number of people Phadnis claimed were involved in his parents' slayings, as well as their ethnicity, changed daily, according to Phadnis' testimony. One day, the gang was comprised of a handful of Samoans and their girlfriends. Later that same day, there were also two whites, a couple of blacks, one Native American and, perhaps, even one transgendered individual in the gang. By the end of the trial, Phadnis was saying there were more than 30 armed Samoans involved.
Phadnis, who frequently asked the judge and prosecutors for help throughout the trial, was allowed to walk around the courtroom, sit on the witness stand and speak freely during his defense.
Under cross-examination by Deputy Prosecutor Don Raz, Phadnis explained his calm demeanor after the slayings because he had "been trained all the way through junior high to stay calm when you deal with fire, crime, drugs and earthquakes." He then launched into a long discourse on how he learned to "stop, drop and roll."
Police and prosecutors said Phadnis was completely calm when he knocked at his neighbor's house late on the night of the slayings and asked to use the phone, saying he was trying to reach his parents. He left, returned a short time later and called 911.
Police said that when officers responded, Phadnis never said anything about a kidnapping or the slayings. Instead, he said he was too tired and hungry to talk and that they should "go home."
In addition, Phadnis said though he had seen someone fire a gun at his parents, he didn't realize they'd been hurt.
"You're telling me that you saw them come out, stand behind your dad and pull the trigger, that you heard the shot and saw blood, and that you didn't know they were injured?" Raz asked incredulously.
Phadnis said it didn't occur to him that his parents had been shot.
Phadnis has had several mental-health evaluations that determined he was competent to make legal decisions for himself. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a competent person the right to have an attorney, but also guarantees the person the right to waive the attorney and defend himself.
The jury began deliberations yesterday afternoon. If Phadnis is convicted of aggravated first-degree murder, he will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com
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