Mukhtiar Panghali guilty of second-degree murder

Former Surrey high school teacher Mukhtiar Panghali has been found guilty of second-degree murder and interfering with a dead body in the 2006 death of his pregnant wife, who was also a teacher.

New Westminster Supreme Court Justice Heather Holmes delivered the verdict Friday morning.

"Mr. Panghali killed Ms. Panghali," Holmes said. "The body of evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so."

Manjit Panghali, 31, was four months pregnant with her second child when she disappeared on Oct. 18, 2006. Her burned body was discovered on a South Delta shoreline next to a truck route a few days later, and her husband was charged with second-degree murder five months later.

At hearing the judge's verdict, Manjit Panghali's family and friends gasped and sobbed in the public gallery, saying "yes" and "it's over" and hugging one other.

Outside the courthouse, Manjit's older sister said the guilty verdict will allow the family to begin the healing process.

"It's been a long hard road that's been painful and heartbreaking. Nobody should ever have to go through anything like this," Jasmine Bhambra said. "Although it's been difficult for us, it doesn't compare to the pain and horror that Manjit must have felt in her final moments – having her life taken away from her by the one person that was supposed to love and protect her. She died a brutal and senseless death at the hands of a sick, twisted and evil monster."

While defense lawyer Michael Tammen had argued at the trial's close in December that there was a "staggering" absence of hard evidence against his client, Crown prosecutor Dennis Murray said that Panghali's behaviour after his wife's disappearance and inconsistencies in his statements to police proved that he murdered her.

The Crown said the 38-year-old Panghali, who made a tearful public plea shortly after his wife went missing, tried to create the impression he was concerned about her, while lying about his whereabouts and covering up the crime.

The defence tried to minimize testimony that Panghali was the same man seen on gas station surveillance video buying a lighter and newspaper the night of Manjit's disappearance, saying the man in the video had his turban tied differently from Panghali's.

But Justice Holmes said she had "no doubt" the man in the video image was Mukhtiar Panghali. She said she examined the store video closely, comparing it to footage of Mukhtiar in an effort to find inconsistencies.

"I could find none. The man in the convenience store footage is identical to Mr. Panghali," she said, adding Mukhtiar's failure to mention that he'd left the house that evening "cannot be a mere oversight."

Panghali, who did not testify in court, said he had not seen his wife since she left for a prenatal yoga class on the night of Oct. 18, 2006. He also said he had stayed home all night.

Manjit's car was found abandoned near Green Timbers Park. And although she had her cellphone with her when she left for class, by the next afternoon, her husband was using the phone, with a different SIM card, and continued to use it until it was seized by police several months later.

That, said the judge, showed that Panghali acquired the phone when Manjit had returned home from her yoga class and that he was the last person to see her.

The defense had also argued Panghali, a physics teacher at Princess Margaret Secondary, didn't want to make a big deal about his wife's disappearance because she had left home before. The judge agreed that would have been a plausible defense on the evening she went missing, but said it was highly unusual that she still hadn't returned home by morning to tend to her daughter Maya's needs. She said the fact that Mukhtiar had taken the precaution of getting his father to pick Maya up after preschool showed the husband knew more.

"He knew that all was not well," said the judge.

Justice Holmes also denied that the charge be downgraded to manslaughter, saying that although Manjit's death by strangulation may have been brief, it was extremely forceful – worse than that of a hanging, she said.

"Mr. Panghali meant to cause bodily harm," said Holmes. "... and he knew it would likely cause death."

Burning the body afterwards, the judge added, took further effort and risk.

Diaries of Manjit, who was a primary teacher at Surrey's North Ridge Elementary, were made public late last year and showed she was depressed, upset by her husband's drinking and was trying desperately to save their marriage.

Mukhtiar Panghali, his head shaved and wearing a light-coloured dress shirt, showed little emotion as the verdict was read in court.

Manjit's sister said she wasn't surprised by the convicted man's lack of expression.

"There's been no remorse from him at all," Jasmine Bhambra said. "He's a sick, evil man. He just doesn't care."

Delta Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Sharlene Brooks expressed relief for Manjit's family, and in particular, her young daughter Maya.

"It is our hope that the outcome today will give some solace and closure knowing this person has been held accountable for his incomprehensible actions," Brooks said.

Both she and Bhambra encouraged anyone facing violence or trouble in their relationship to seek help, either from family and friends, by calling police or accessing available community resources.

Panghali will receive an automatic life sentence. His parole eligibility will be determined on March 17.

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