A California man charged with killing his estranged wife and another parishioner inside a New Jersey church took the stand Thursday to describe the killings and a marriage full of turbulence that he blamed on meddling from her family and members of their insular, ancient Christian sect.
Joseph Pallipurath, of Sacramento, is on trial in Paterson in the killing of his estranged wife, 24-year-old Reshma James, and 25-year-old Dennis John Mallosseril, a parishioner who had tried to intervene.
Prosecutors said Pallipurath drove across the country, burst into the vestibule of a Clifton church in November 2008 and tried to remove James by force.
James and Mallosseril were fatally shot. James' cousin Silvy Perincheril was shot in the head but survived. She is now in a wheelchair. Pallipurath was arrested in Georgia the next day.
Pallipurath admitted Thursday that he took two legally registered, loaded handguns from his car into the church, but said he had only intended to scare anyone who might intervene in what he said was a private domestic matter.
"I just blacked out, and I lost it," Pallipurath said under questioning from his attorney about the moment of the shooting. "I wasn't thinking. I don't know what I was thinking at that point."
Defense lawyer Harley Breite said Pallipurath's actions were not premeditated, and he should not be convicted of murder.
"I hope the jury sees a man who was pained by an unsuccessful marriage and never intended to harm anyone," he said.
If the jury believes his actions were premeditated, Pallipurath could face up to life in prison for the two counts of murder and one attempted murder count he is facing. It hasn't yet been determined what the jury could do if the defense argument prevails; the attorneys were to meet with the judge Friday to settle on jury instructions. Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday.
The New Jersey courtroom was packed with members of the Knanaya community, a close-knit Christian minority who largely hail from the South Indian state of Kerala.
The group has two main branches, Catholic and Syriac Orthodox, and is estimated by church officials to have about 50,000 to 100,000 members worldwide. Members trace their roots back to 72 families that traveled from the Middle East to India around the year 340 to do missionary work. Their strict inter-marriage customs _ meant to preserve ancient bloodlines _ mean many families know one another, regardless of where they live.
The killings, and the subsequent trial, have reverberated throughout the Knanayan community worldwide, according to the Rev. Thomas Abraham, the head of the St. Thomas Syrian Orthodox Knanaya Church where the shootings occurred.
"It's been very painful and hard to relive all the memories," said Abraham, who was in the church the day of the shooting and attended the trial Thursday. "For us in the community, something of this magnitude is so new, so unexpected."
Mallosseril's mother, Aley Kutty John, put her head down, sobbed and then grew faint and fell in the courtroom aisle Thursday as Pallipurath described how Mallosseril, who was walking into the church to attend services at the moment of the confrontation, had tried to prevent Pallipurath from forcing his wife to return to California with him.
"The defense kept repeating his name: 'Dennis John, Dennis John' over and over and I just couldn't take it," Aley John said later. She said she felt compelled to sit through the trial to learn what had happened to her son in the final moments of his life.
"I'm doing it for my son, it's the last thing I could do for him," she said.
The family decided to donate Mallosseril's organs after the shooting. Aley John said Thursday she was enormously comforted by a recent email from the family of the recipient of her son's heart, which said the man was able to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
Pallipurath, 29, recounted Thursday how he first met James after his grandfather placed a "seeking matrimony" ad for him in a community newspaper, a practice he said was common in his community.
He said the two liked each other right away, but James' family was adamantly opposed from the beginning and forbade her to marry him. She secretly reached out to him when she left home for college in Southern India, he said.
Pallipurath said James defied her family, married him and followed him to California, where Pallipurath had moved with his family as a teenager.
He recounted frequent disagreements, admitting to occasionally slapping James or pinching her arm.
Passaic County Chief Assistant Prosecutor John Latoracca, in cross examining Pallipurath, said those incidents were actually violent, frequent arguments and severe beatings _ including one in which Pallipurath allegedly hit his wife and injured her with a steel steering wheel lock while teaching her to drive.
Pallipurath recounted several arguments that ended in brief separations and reconciliations, and admitted to registering a fake email address to pose as one of James' girlfriends, in order to find out what she thought of him. When James eventually fled California to live with her cousin's family in New Jersey and pursue a nursing degree, Pallipurath blamed her meddling relatives.
"Did you hate your community?" Latoracca asked, when questioning him about a statement he gave police in Georgia that he had wished he had a machine gun and could have shot everyone in the church that day.
"I did at the time," Pallipurath replied.