Sept. 27, 2010 Updated Dec. 2, 2011
Gurparkash Singh Khalsa
The author’s account of her role as jury foreperson at a 2010 murder trial in Stockton, California.
by Joan Bannan
Ajmer Singh Hothi, a 23-year-old trucker from Jalandhar, India was shot and killed in the cab of his parked big rig in Stockton, California on March 27, 2007. The weapon that killed him was a 9mm handgun that discharged nine bullets into the cab – six of those into Ajmer’s body. The one that entered his heart killed him instantly. He had been in the United States for 10 years, primarily residing with his parents. His mother and sister, who were in great fear for his life, had not been able to reach him for a couple of hours so they drove to the yard where he parked his truck. They found his lifeless body and called 911.
Four days after the murder, the San Joaquin Sherriff’s Department arrested Gurparkash Singh Khalsa, the father of Ajmer’s former girlfriend, Kirin Pannu. Several months later, the evidence, all circumstantial, was sent to a grand jury. After the four-day grand jury session, Khalsa was indicted on the charge of first-degree murder.
Fifty-eight year-old Khalsa, a prominent member of the local Sikh community and owner of a local trucking firm, avoided trial for three years by changing attorneys. In March 2010, a jury was selected for Khalsa’s murder trial. I would become Juror No. 7.
During the jury selection process, three courtrooms full of people were sent up to a courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse. The judge told us that we were being considered for a murder trial and ran through a forecasted two-month schedule. She offered to let people with hardships to stay behind and state their reasons, and sent the rest of us down to a courtroom on the second floor to fill out a seven-page questionnaire. At the top of the questionnaire, it stated that the death penalty was not being sought.
The questionnaire asked if we knew any of the people in a long list of names. These included the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the defendant, his family and several witnesses. It asked if we had heard of the murder on TV newscasts or read about it in the paper. I did not remember seeing it on TV and my newspaper of choice is The Wall Street Journal, which had no coverage of the murder. The questionnaire also asked if we knew anyone in law enforcement. I thought my answer to this would send me home because one of my sons is a police officer. We were asked if we liked lawyers. I chuckled to myself remembering some mean lawyer jokes, but then truthfully said that I only knew one lawyer personally and that he was one of the nicest people I know. We were asked a bunch of other questions about our experiences with the judicial system and life in general. One of these types of questions was: Did we think we could tell if someone was lying?
It took me longer to complete the questionnaire than anyone else in the courtroom. I supposed that it was because at 63, I am older than most of the other potential jurors and it took me longer to fill out my life experiences. I listed that I am the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of six. The other reason it may have taken me longer is because I’m a writer and I like to write.
After filling out the questionnaire on a Monday, we were told to go home and check for an outgoing voice mail message after 4:30 on Tuesday. If our name was not on that outgoing message, we were to report back to the courtroom on the third floor at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. There were only five names on the voice mail. Mine was not one of them.
Wednesday morning the courtroom was packed. Apparently, there had been very few excused from all three groups. I was the seventh person called to sit in the jury box. When the jury box was full, the judge, apparently reading from our questionnaires, asked some of us questions. The only questions she asked me were if I had a son who was a police officer and whether that would hinder me from judging fairly. I said it would not.
Jury selection took less than one hour. I think the questionnaires had something to do with that. I was selected for another jury many years ago. It seemed to take forever to get the 12 jurors plus alternates settled in that one. Each of the lawyers, as well as the judge asked questions that time. I think this time, the lawyers selected from the questionnaires, and the judge took it from there.
The 12 jurors were originally seven women and five men, but one of the women had a family emergency about a week before the trial ended. The alternate that replaced her was a man so when we went into deliberations, our jury was evenly gender divided. We represented a vast age gap. A few people were grandparents like me. One of them also had a son in law enforcement. We had two mothers of twins, lots of parents and an uncle, who had no children of his own, but lived in California to be close to his nieces. Including alternates, we had four nurses (one of the men was a nurse), two retirees, a school teacher, an executive from a large Stockton bakery, a department store associate, a CVS Pharmacy warehouse stockman, a grocery store bakery manager, one unemployed, a chef at an assisted living facility, a cigarette saleswoman, who doesn’t smoke, and me. I am a senior business manager at AT&T, a skin care consultant, and an author.
Our jurors, including the alternates, were at all times kind and respectful to each other and we made friends right away. The bakery executive started it. He brought some delicious coffee braids the first day and a few consecutive days following. I told him to hold off one day and I brought homemade muffins still warm from my oven. Then everyone brought food. We always had bowls of fresh fruit, donuts, chips and dips, and other comfort foods to make the time in the jury room more enjoyable. Unfortunately, nothing could make the trial more enjoyable.
It was tedious at first. We were dependent on a Hindi translator’s schedule so witnesses were brought in out of order. The thing is, the witnesses who wanted an interpreter also knew English. The judge had to keep reminding them to let the translator translate. They would start to answer before he finished. Sigh. But, eventually we started to hear the facts and whenever they could get away with it, the witnesses’ opinions.
From mid-2005, Ajmer had been romantically involved with Khalsa’s oldest daughter, Kirin Pannu. Except for Khalsa himself, his entire family, including his brother, used the last name, Pannu. The defendant started using Khalsa as his last name after he was baptized.
Witnesses at trial testified that late in 2005, the two families met to discuss marriage. Khalsa did not approve. He said Ajmer was not good enough for his daughter because Ajmer’s family was not as wealthy as the Khalsa family. Khalsa’s daughter was going to go to college. Ajmer Hothi, who had graduated from Tokay High School in Lodi, was a working man, still paying for his truck, and Khalsa did not approve of Ajmer’s not wearing a turban and wearing his hair short. Nor did he care for the jewelry Ajmer sported.
In early 2006, Ajmer’s family sent him to his native village, Ballan, in the Jalandhar province of India for three months to stay with his Jalandhar-based sister while preparing for an arranged marriage. After he married Jasbir Kaur of Muradpur Nariavillage in India, he filed immigration papers to bring his wife to the United States, but returned without her.
Kirin Pannu picked Ajmer up at the airport and they resumed seeing each other. At some time during this period, Kirin got pregnant with Ajmer’s child and had an abortion. We never got a straight answer from her or her father of the exact time that her father learned this, but at some point in time he reversed his decision and started demanding that Ajmer divorce is wife and marry Kirin.
Several prosecution witnesses testified that from March of 2006 to January 2007 there were several instances of public drama between the families. Yes the whole family. When these families got into arguments or discussions, they invited everyone in both families, including honorary aunts and uncles. One of these dustups started at a Stockton Hallmark store, but got moved to the shopping mall parking lot when the assembly of both families arrived. Another was in front of a Stockton trucking yard where Ajmer parked his big rig. On that occasion, Kirin and her mother blocked the driveway with their car. Both parties called other members of each family, including both fathers.
From the trucking yard, they moved the assembly of parents and siblings to the living room of one of the honorary aunt and uncles. Kirin testified that Ajmer wouldn’t talk for himself and would not in fact talk at all. It frustrated her that he yielded all communication to his sister. At one point of her angry testimony, Kirin confirmed that she threw her cell phone at Ajmer. This fit of temper had been mentioned in a previous prosecution witness testimony. Also in that fray, witnesses testified that Khalsa threatened to have someone rape Ajmer’s mother and sister and that there was a comment from Khalsa about Ajmer’s future, “If he lives to see it.”
One prosecution witness testified that Khalsa drove his black Ford truck back and forth by the basketball court where Ajmer, also known as “AJ” or “Saabi,” had pickup games with his friends. A former female friend of Kirin testified that, approaching the time of Ajmer’s murder, as she sat across from Kirin at the Khalsa dining room table, Kirin told her that her father was, “going to take care of Saabi.” The witness further testified that Khalsa was in the room at the time and overheard the conversation and that he commanded Kirin to come outside with him immediately.
When Khalsa, and then his daughter were cross-examined by the prosecutor, they each confirmed that they went to India for 10 days in January 2007. They both claimed that they just happened to be there for a cousin’s wedding and drove to the Hothi’s home village of Ballan because it was on the way. A witness, who had been in India at that time, testified that when Khalsa and his daughter came to Ballan, they tried to convince the village leaders, or “Panchayat,” to force Ajmer’s wife to divorce him. This witness, who is also an Indian expatriate, thought it was strange for someone to plan a mere 10-day trip to India. He said that most people spend at least a month or longer because of the cost and travel time. He also said that Ballan is a great distance from the village where Khalsa and Kirin were attending a wedding. He would not consider it “on the way.”
The most damning evidence at trial was related to Ajmer’s cell phone. Not only were there phone records that showed where the phone traveled after he was murdered, they also showed the activity between Kirin’s and Ajmer’s phones. Ajmer had the insight to save recorded messages and protect his voice mail with a pass code. He gave that pass code to his sister, who accessed them after her brother’s murder. These messages were played aloud in the court room.
Many of the messages were from Kirin after Ajmer told her he wanted to end their relationship. In these messages, Kirin comes across as both badgering and distraught in her unwillingness to accept his decision. To apparently avoid her calls, Ajmer changed his cell phone number in January of 2005 and then again on March 26, the day before he was shot to death. Ajmer did not give Kirin or her father the new number, though it seemed that he must have renewed the relationship with Kirin for a short while after the first time he changed his phone number.
Witnesses testified to the great lengths that Kirin and her father had gone to attempting to get Ajmer’s new numbers from them and to get Ajmer’s current whereabouts. On cross-examination by the prosecutor, Kirin admitted that she lied to Ajmer’s boss to get his new phone number, saying she was his aunt and calling because his mother was ill so she needed his phone number immediately. Phone records indicated that on days that Kirin had Ajmer’s phone number, she called him 20 to 50 times.
Two days before Ajmer was murdered, Kirin left him emotional messages thanking him for breaking her heart. In one message she said, “Saabi, you are home and you won’t return my calls.” The last recorded message was difficult to understand through her hysterical sobbing, “This is the last time you will hear from me.” Sandwiched between Kirin’s frantic recorded messages, was a vicious message from her father. It was particularly vulgar. Khalsa threatened Ajmer’s whole family with sodomy and rape, and he said he would, “… ‘teach a lesson’ for playing with my daughter,” expletives and uncouth name-calling deleted.
Seven of eight video cameras at Khalsa’s business showed Khalsa’s brother’s Nissan Titan truck leave the business and return during the two-hour period during which Ajmer Hothi was shot and killed. Khalsa said he was working in the “second” office during that time and was not seen on any cameras. The driver of the truck would have been clearly identified if camera two had it not been coincidentally unplugged. We saw both Khalsa and his brother come out of “office one” and walk in front of the camera mounted on the front of the “office two” building. This was also the path to the Titan. We saw the brother walk back into the door of “office one” at about the same time his Titan was (recorded on a different camera) drove out of the yard. Less than a minute after the Titan returned, we saw Khalsa walk in front of three cameras and return to the first office.
One witness, a business associate, saw Khalsa in a Titan truck, during the window of time that Khalsa said he was in the second office. It fit the time when the Titan truck left Khalsa’s business and would be on a likely path traveling toward the trucking yard where Ajmer was murdered. This was between a 30 and 45 minutes before Ajmer made his last outgoing phone call on his cell phone. The rest of the calls to Ajmer’s phone were unanswered, but they defined the phone’s location after he died. Someone had apparently taken the phone from his dead body. The earpiece was still in his ear. The cord was left dangling.
A “hit” on a cell phone tower near Khalsa’s trucking yard office indicated that someone tried to access Ajmer’s voicemail after he was killed. Shortly after the timing of that attempted call, Khalsa’s phone accessed his own voicemail using the same tower. Then, coinciding with the time two video cameras showed Khalsa leaving his business property in his personal vehicle, both Khalsa’s and Ajmer’s cell phones hit cell towers indicating that they were traveling in the same direction as Khalsa’s truck that was driving north on I-5. None of the incoming calls to Ajmer’s phone were from Kirin. When the phones reached the towers near the defendant’s lakefront home, Ajmer’s phone went out of service and has never been located.
The murder weapon was never found. The prosecutor submitted as evidence, an official document showing that Khalsa at one time was the registered owner of 9mm Berretta. The defense brought a witness saying he saw Khalsa selling “a handgun” behind the Sikh temple in the ‘90s. Khalsa told the investigating deputies that he had never owned any firearms.
Only one, very confused witness, claimed to see Khalsa on his business property during that two- hour period that Khalsa was not on any camera. It was apparent from camera replays that there were several opportunities for this witness to have asked Khalsa the question he claimed to remember asking at a precise time three years before. There were other reasons the jury found his testimony unreliable. There was an inconsistent time stamp on a receipt for a brake drum that conflicted with this story of how he remembered that day. It confirmed that his memory may have been faulty. During cross-examination and a moment of frustration, the witness admitted that he “couldn’t remember what happened yesterday.” This witness had not come forth at the grand jury. His livelihood was affected by Khalsa’s business. There were records of him visiting Khalsa in jail.
I felt I had enough evidence to find the defendant guilty after I saw a large poster with colorful map of cell phone towers that depicted the location of both the victim and the defendant’s cell phones during the few hours following the murder. It was still hard to think about voting to send a man to prison for the rest of his life. I was having daily headaches and difficulty sleeping. One morning, I woke with a start at around 4 a.m. The thought that awakened me was, “He has another daughter.” I knew I could not vote to acquit a man who might someday viciously murder someone else in an “honor killing.”
The trial was supposed to go through April 16, but on Tuesday, March 30, the prosecutor rested his case and the judge told us we were one week ahead of schedule. In the jury room, there was great rejoicing.
The defense attorney harassed Ajmer’s sister and mother while they were on the stand to the point where I thought I might, in sympathy for them, cry or possibly even throw up. He was trying to prove that the time of death was at a different time than what the coroner testified. I could not imagine their pain. My brother died at the age of 20 in an accident. My mother never really recovered. This tragedy was much more distressing than what my mother and I faced when my brother died. I felt like the defense attorney was torturing Ajmer’s mother when he pressed her to remember the condition and temperature of her son’s bloody, gruesomely murdered body.
The defense attorney really didn’t have much to work with. He put Khalsa on the stand to “show his state of mind.” Khalsa broke down and cried and called Saabi his son. He admitted it was his voice in the crude and cruel voice mail message and brushed it off as a lighthearted rebuke in his culture. He was difficult to understand at times, often wandering off topic and claiming that he stayed out of his daughter’s affairs and that he just let the lovers live their lives without his interference. What he claimed was inconsistent with everything everyone said, including his daughter. It was certainly inconsistent with the nasty threatening message he left on Ajmer’s voice mail. Seated as Juror No. 7, I was in the first row, straight across from the witness box. At one point, Khalsa turned and looked directly into my eyes. I stared right back at him, wondering if I could see truth or lies in his eyes. He turned away. He never looked in my direction again.
Kirin’s testimony confirmed that she left the messages that sounded like she was stalking Ajmer. She blamed his family for keeping them apart and waxed on and on about how Saabi loved her and that her father would have never killed him.
I found neither of them convincing.
The defense attorney futilely tried discrediting two star prosecution witnesses. The first was Kirin’s friend, who heard Kirin say her father, “would take care of Saabi.” He forcefully confronted the witness who saw Khalsa in the Titan truck. As a rebuttal witness, he called to the stand a pontificating, pompous, experimental behavior expert, with a creative comb-over and what looked like alligator cowboy boots. When the jury reached the jury room we all to burst out laughing. We adhered to our instructions to “not talk about the case,” but we couldn’t help but comment on his arrogance and condescending attitude toward our ability to make a decision. Later, when we were deliberating, I told the rest of the jurors that in his attempt to discredit the two key prosecuting witnesses he convinced me only that the key defense witness was not credible.
The defense attorney also kept picking on the lead detective in the case, implying that he was incompetent… to the point of ridiculousness. Then he turned on the prosecuting attorney and lowered himself to childish antics. He told the prosecuting attorney that he didn’t like him, he was mad at him, and that if he ran for judge, he wouldn’t vote for him.
After the defense attorney rested his case, the judge allowed the prosecutor a time of rebuttal to delve into Ajmer’s state of mind because the defense had opened the door to the defendant’s state of mind. One of Ajmer’s friends testified he would pick up trailers for Ajmer if they were in Khalsa’s truck yard. He would disconnect his own truck, hook it to the trailer that Ajmer needed to pick up, and then and park the trailer somewhere so Ajmer would not have to set foot on Khalsa’s property. There was evidence that Ajmer moved out of an apartment to return to his parent’s home where he installed security cameras. Ajmer Hothi and his family were living in fear.
On Wednesday, April 7, we heard closing arguments.
On the morning of Thursday April 8, after the judge read us instructions, the bailiff was sworn in to protect us and we were sent to our jury room to deliberate. I volunteered to be foreperson, but said I would gladly yield if someone else wanted the job. No one else volunteered.
I suggested that we take a preliminary vote, but there was strong opposition to that idea without first looking over the evidence. We pulled out phone records and photos and passed them around. We reviewed the video tapes from Khalsa’s trucking yard. The large poster showing the cell towers and hits from the traveling cell phones hovered over in the corner of the room. We often found ourselves pointing to the poster as we each in turn had our say. We knew by the end of the day that we were in agreement of a verdict, but we decided to sleep on it and reconvene on Friday.
I took my pounding headache home, flopped on the couch, and watched a bunch of taped TV shows, mostly “Law and Order.” One show, however, was an episode of “The Good Wife,” also a courtroom drama. Coincidentally, it was orchestrated from the perspective of the jurors. I found myself wishing that our courtroom and jury room were as posh and clean as theirs, but I much preferred the way our jury worked together, without arguing and being testy with each other.
As we deliberated on Friday, some of the jurors expressed what we were all feeling. Two of the women could not stop crying. Even with overwhelming evidence, we did not feel good about deciding someone else’s fate. One of the jurors said to one of the two who were crying, “Please cry on my behalf because I cannot.” I’m quite sure at this point, if the death penalty had been a possibility, we may not have reached a unanimous decision.
On Friday morning we didn’t bother with private ballots. We each took a turn to summarize how we saw the trial and why we were voting the way we were. I notified the bailiff that we had reached a verdict. They told us we would be called into court at 1:30 p.m. to give time for the defendant, the defendant’s family, the victim’s family, and the alternate jurors to be notified.
We met the alternate jurors for lunch. My hours of watching “Law and Order” were catching up to me. My heart rate was up and my anxiety increased to the point where I could hear each of my heart beats swishing in my ears. I expected to be put on the spot to publicly deliver our verdict when we returned to court. I had a beer with my fish and chips.
I was thankful to discover that the San Joaquin County Courts do not function the way “Law and Order” portrays the jury foreperson announcing the verdict in New York City. The judge asked me if we had reached a verdict. I handed our papers to the judge, who handed the verdict to the court clerk, and she read the verdict.
We found Gurparkash Singh Khalsa guilty of first-degree murder. We also found him guilty of two special circumstances, “lying in wait” and “discharging a firearm with intent to kill.” With the death penalty off the table, the verdict carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Khalsa was to be sentenced in May, but he fired his attorney again. His new high-profile attorney was able to get his sentencing moved to September 20th.
Then the judge polled the jurors individually to confirm our unanimous decision. One of our members was weeping openly, but she was able to answer, “Yes.” They excused us to the jury room and told us we could now discuss the case, look in newspapers, and read about it on the Internet. We were also free to ask questions of the attorneys if we wished.
The prosecutor and the lead detective came into our room to talk to us. The defense attorney declined.
We learned a lot of things from them that I also found on the Internet the day after the trial. All the “hearsay” and feelings of friends and family that had been held back from the trial indicated that everyone knew who murdered Ajmer the minute they heard he was dead. Friends who blogged cried out for justice for the family and prayed that Ajmer would rest in peace. The day before he died, Ajmer obtained forms to submit a restraining order to protect him from Khalsa’s threats. The prosecutor also told us that Jasbir, Ajmer’s wife, was now residing in the United States, but that she came here after Ajmer was murdered.
When we were through quizzing the prosecutor and the lead detective, eight uniformed, armed guards escorted us out of the courthouse. The armed lead detective joined us as well. One of the officers had reconnoitered the situation. The family of the defendant was hovering outside on the courthouse front stairs. The officers walked us out the back of the courthouse where several more uniformed officers surrounded us as body guards to lead us through a park, and then across several streets to the parking garage. One of them was the bailiff who had sworn to protect us.
As a few of us reached our floor in the parking garage, one of the jurors thanked me for being foreperson. He said he was going home to go open an “unsatisfactory” bottle of wine. I said I knew what he meant and then I quoted a “Law and Order” assistant district attorney, who felt conflicted by the outcome a complicated case, “It was a good day’s work, but not a good day.”
Khalsa appealed his conviction and lost. He was then sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison in September of 2011. The coroner ruled on November 17, 2011 that he died of natural causes, alone in his cell with no evidence of foul play.