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Wally Oppal rejected plea deal in Panghali murder case
Surrey's Mukhtiar Panghali, convicted nearly two years ago of murdering his pregnant wife, wanted to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter but then-B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal nixed the deal.
Details surrounding the planned plea and appointment of a special prosecutor in the Panghali case were released by the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch Monday.
Panghali was charged in 2007 with the second-degree murder of his 30-year-old wife Manjit the year before. He was found guilty in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 15 years for strangling his wife and leaving her burned body on a South Delta shoreline. An appeal of his conviction was rejected last October.
However, the documents released publicly this week reveal the Crown and Panghali's lawyers had a deal worked out that he would plead guilty to manslaughter, primarily because there was little direct evidence – mainly circumstantial – surrounding the circumstances of Manjit's death.
But Oppal disagreed with the plea bargain.
"Having reviewed all the available evidence, I disagree with the view of the Branch," reads a Feb. 10, 2009 letter from Oppal. "It is my opinion that there remains a strong, solid case of substance to present to the Court, and that there continues to be a substantial likelihood it is in the public interest to proceed with the prosecution on the charge of second degree murder."
Because of the differing views, a special prosecutor was appointed to take the case to trial – a step taken to "ensure there was no risk of real or perceived improper influence," according to the Criminal Justice Branch.
Jasmine Bhambra, Manjit Panghali's sister, said her family was privy to the discussions about a plea deal. At the time, she recalls being taken aback that her sister's killer might face a lesser charge and punishment, but understood the difficult position Crown prosecutors were in.
"If we had a different outcome, I'd probably be singing a different song," said Bhambra on Tuesday. "We're just happy with the result that we have. I think about her every day and that's enough."
The details about the special prosecutor and plea deal were not released until now to "safeguard the integrity of the trial and any associated appeals process, as well as the fair trial interest of Mr. Panghali," said a Criminal Justice Branch release.
In finding Panghali guilty, Justice Heather Holmes said the evidence, while perhaps circumstantial, showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Mukhtiar killed Manjit. Holmes had "no doubt" it was Mukhtiar seen on gas station surveillance video buying a lighter and newspaper on the night Manjit disappeared and pointed to the fact the killer used her cell phone for months after her death, despite claiming he hadn't seen her after she left for a yoga class on Oct. 18, 2006.
Holmes also denied that the charge be downgraded to manslaughter, saying that although Manjit's strangulation may have been brief, it was extremely forceful.
"Mr. Panghali meant to cause bodily harm," said Holmes. "... and he knew it would likely cause death."