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Two Sodhi Brothers Shot in the backlash of 9/11 Death Penalty overturned

08/21/2006

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    PHOENIX -- Roque, 47, was distraught over the 2001 terrorist attacks and decided to seek vengeance. Four days after Sept. 11, he shot and killed Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner whom he mistook for an extremist.

    After shooting Balbir Singh Sodhi, Roque drove to a home that he'd sold to an Afghan family near 32nd Street and Broadway Road and opened fire, but missed the people inside.

    Then, he drove around the corner to a convenience store at Val Vista Drive and Broadway Road where a man of Lebanese descent was working. He fired shots through the window of the store but missed the man also.

    Mesa police arrested him a few hours later as he yelled that he was a patriot and an American.

    A jury rebuffed Roque's insanity defense and convicted him of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, reckless endangerment and three counts of drive-by shooting. Then it sentenced him to death.

    Monday high court unanimously agreed that Frank Silva Roque's mental illness and low IQ were mitigating factors and should have resulted in the lesser sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.

    "We have such a doubt in this case, and therefore conclude that the death penalty should not be imposed," Vice Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch wrote. "Because of the serious nature of Roque's crimes, however, we conclude that he should be imprisoned for the rest of his natural life and never be released."

    Monday's high court decision upheld the jury's convictions, despite acknowledging misconduct on the part of prosecutors, but commuted the jury's death sentence.

    Such commutations are rare in Arizona.

    Rana Singh Sodhi, 39 youngest brother of Balbir Singh said he hopes people understand that the life sentence still shows that society will not tolerate hate crimes and the murders of innocent people

    Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49, of Mesa, an immigrant from India, wore a turban as expression of his Sikh faith and was shot because Roque mistakenly identified him as Middle Eastern.

    The Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case, disagreed with the original ruling.

    Barnett Lotstein, special assistant county attorney, said the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 put the decision-making in death penalty cases into the hands of juries and took it away from judges in its landmark ruling of Ring v. Arizona.

    Although the Arizona Supreme Court had a right to conduct an "independent review" of the jury's decision, it went against the spirit of the Ring decision, Lotstein said. "We believe the jury was correct," he said.

    Because Roque pursued an insanity defense, his five-week trial in fall 2003 focused heavily on whether Roque was mentally ill and whether it impaired his ability to know right from wrong.

    In the end, jurors rejected the mental-health defense and imposed a death sentence. Some jurors thought Roque had some form of mental illness, but not enough to excuse his actions.

    "As long as he spends all of his life in prison. We don't want to see him on the streets, were he could hurt someone else" said Rana Singh Sodhi.

    "I don't agree that he (Roque) is mentally ill," Sodhi said, although he still respects the court's opinion. "He did it with a purpose."

    Others rejected the defense outright as a weak excuse for his behavior.

    The trial attracted national attention, with Court TV cameras recording the proceedings in Judge Mark Aceto's crammed courtroom, the Prime Minister of India calling President Bush, the Secretary General of the United Nations sending the message, “No gentle person, no child, no culture and no religion should be condemned, assaulted or targeted because of the unspeakable acts of others.”

    Sodhi moved to the US in 1989 and had at first worked as a cab driver in San Francisco but felt unsafe doing so amid stories of cabbie murders. He moved to Arizona later to be with his brothers and open a gas station in what he thought was his little piece of heaven in Mesa Arizona.

    On the afternoon of September 15, landscapers had just finished their work in the parking lot of the newly opened gas station cum convenience store of Sodhi and asked him to come outside and inspect their work. The moment Sodhi came out, he was shot at by Roque.

    It was the neighbors of that community who held candle light vigils for months: echoing Balbir Singh's words of love they neighbor and protect the innocent people.

    "Our dress and articles of faith are Sikh, we are Sikh," Harjit Sodhi, another brother who at that time had lived in the US for 18 years, said, adding: "But our country is America -- we had our children here, we built our businesses here, we came here for religious freedom."

    During the trial, prosecutors charged that killing was prompted by racism and hate by someone with a long-time drinking problem.

    Another Sodhi brother, Sukhpal Singh was also shot in the back and killed in San Francisco less then a year after Balbir. The family feels that it was also a hate crime, because none of his valuables were taken from him. There have been no leads or closure in the case.

    After Singh Sodhi's murder, Arizonans rallied at the family's side, telling them that they have no tolerance for Roque's behavior. The family is planning a memorial on the fifth anniversary of Balbir Singh's death.

    "We really have so much love for this community. We had so much love from people, the neighbors, the police, local, national and international leaders and all of the faiths," Rana Singh Sodhi said.

    "In our religion we forgive everybody," his brother Harjit Singh Sodhi said. "Everything is up to God."

    "We want to honor all those people who stood up and said love they neighbor, protect the innocent people, hate crimes and backlash will not be tolerated in this community," said GuruRoop Kaur Khalsa, a Sikh community leader.

    A week after the murder, religious groups and leaders of all kinds rallied at against intolerance at the Phoenix Civic Center. A plaque at the gas station, owned and operated by Sodhi's son, Sukhwinder, honors his father.

    "He was very peaceful and very respectful of human life. He didn't want to hurt any person," said Harjit Singh Sodhi, one of Balbir's brothers.

    GuruRoop Kaur Khalsa said the five-year anniversary memorial is being planned for the weekend of Sept. 15-17, the exact time and place will be announced.

    Sodhi became a symbol for protecting the innocent because he went to a Sikh temple days before the shooting and warned GuruRoop Kaur that we must all educate others about Sikh values, our articles of faith and that we are from India.

    GuruRoop Kaur Khalsa said Sikhs are against racial and religious intolerance aimed at any group and that most immigrated to the U.S. because the Constitution protects freedom of religion and civil rights.

    "It is aligned to our belief - that everyone is the same in God's eyes. We respect all religions," she said.

    When asked about the death penalty GuruRoop Kaur said in the words of the Sikh founder Guru Nanak, from the sacred Sikh writings:

    “The pains of birth and death come from past actions and karma (cause and effect of your actions); peace comes when the soul is clear and finds release from past action and karma.

    God has counted all the days and the breaths that we might breathe, and placed them in our destiny; we do not increase or decrease those days or breaths one little bit. One comes and goes, subject to the will of the Infinite Lord.”

    She said Sikhs were looking at Roque's sentence more as a statement condemning racial and religious intolerance.

    The struggle against hate requires that all of us as community leaders take a strong stand and condemn acts of violence, the killing of innocent people and prosecute the offender so other potential victims, their families and community are not traumatized and targeted.

    She ended, with "Bless you all for your bravery –standing up to hate and fear with love and kindness; we must strive to see what we have in common instead of targeting others over our differences or faith."

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