Jurors recommend death in California killings case

AP Photo/The Orange County Register

A California jury on Monday recommended a death sentence for a man convicted of murdering his former girlfriend's father and sister in a fiery 2007 attack on the family's home that prosecutors say was an ill-conceived attempt at reuniting with his ex.

Jurors deliberated for about three hours in the penalty phase of Iftekhar Murtaza's trial before announcing Thursday they had reached a verdict, said Orange County Deputy District Attorney Howard Gundy. Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals decided to wait until Monday to read the verdict.

Murtaza, 29, was convicted Nov. 22 of two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of conspiracy. The 12 jurors found there were special circumstances of multiple murders, and murder during a kidnapping in the case of one victim.

Goethals set a sentencing hearing for Jan. 10.

Authorities say Murtaza killed the relatives of Shayona Dhanak, who was a college freshman in 2007, after she blamed her decision to end the couple's two-year relationship on her devout Hindu family's opposition to her dating a Muslim.

The family's home in Anaheim Hills was torched, and Dhanak's mother, Leela, was stabbed and left unconscious on a neighbor's lawn. The charred, stabbed bodies of Dhanak's father, Jay, and 20-year-old sister, Karishma, were found in a park the next day.

Two of Murtaza's friends also were convicted in the killings. Vitaliy Krasnoperov was sentenced to life in prison, and Charles Murphy Jr. is scheduled to be sentenced in December.

Prosecutors say an obsessed Murtaza wanted to kill the family to eliminate them as an obstacle to the relationship and drive Shayona Dhanak back to his arms. In an online chat with Krasnoperov, Murtaza first planned to hire a hit man. But he carried out the killings himself with Murphy's help when Dhanak told him she planned to go on a date with someone else, Gundy said during the trial.

Authorities were dispatched to the inferno at the family's home in May 2007. Dhanak's father and sister were missing until the next morning, when their bodies were found burning in a park 2 miles from her dorm room at the University of California, Irvine.

Murtaza was interviewed by police several days later and then arrested at a Phoenix airport with a ticket to his native Bangladesh and more than $11,000 in cash.

During the trial, Murtaza testified that he told many people he wanted to kill the Dhanaks because he was distraught over the breakup, but he said he didn't mean it literally.

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