Did Purvi Patel pay the ultimate penalty for being a good Indian girl?

Sonia Chopra
Sonia ChopraApr 22, 2015 | 12:36

Did Purvi Patel pay the ultimate penalty for being a good Indian girl?

I started my two decades-long career as a journalist in the United States working in small newspapers, where I covered the police and courts for many years. I wrote about arrests, crimes and went to courtrooms where the defendants were accused of murder, rape, assault, thefts and child abuse.

I spoke to police, attorneys and prosecutors but I have never had any contact with defendants. In my experience, if they are arrested, charged and convicted they are guilty.

When I read of Purvi Patel, the 33-year-old Indian-American woman who made headlines because she was the first woman in the US to be charged, convicted and sentenced for feticide (spelt foeticide in India) and child neglect, I figured prosecutors had had "probable cause" to arrest her and enough "evidence" to prove their case.

But as I glanced at Patel's mugshot, I was drawn to her eyes. She looked hurt and confused. I felt compelled to examine the story closely.

Purvi Patel's mugshot.

I realised that the contradictory charges of allegedly killing an unborn child to die are both outrageous and unjust. Feticide applies to an already dead fetus and neglect can only apply to a living child. Indiana along with 37 other US states has fetal homicide laws and Patel is the second Asian American women that they have convicted. She is sentenced to 20 years in jail.

I wrote a story on Patel and I spent days talking to advocates who are familiar with her case. They were very vocal on their views and they spoke with passion and outrage and they remain united in condemning both the justice and health care systems that they say have harshly punished Patel.

A brief glance at the case: Patel, an unmarried Hindu woman, living at home with her parents and grandparents suffered a miscarriage and threw the fetus which she said was stillborn into a dumpster. The hospital reported her to the police and she was arrested, charged and convicted.

The prosecution case was largely built around statements that Patel made to the police which were taped. Still groggy, disoriented from surgery, she voluntarily spoke to law enforcement.

A polite, well-educated woman, raised in a traditional Gujarati household, Patel was dignified and respectful.

On the audio tape released by police later, Patel was cooperative and eager to clear up the messy situation.

She did not dare to question an authority figure. She listed all the embarrassing details. No, her parents did not know of her pregnancy or her affair with his man.

Patel wasn't street-smart nor she was slick enough to withhold information and she did not try to hide anything. Advocates believe that she was not told that she had the right to have an attorney present or that whatever she was saying will be used against her.

Doctors and nurses who are supposed to be protective of their patients who are incapacitated after surgery allowed the police to enter her room and aggressively question Patel. This has enraged advocates and it concerns me too. Why did the hospital let this happen?

What kind of caregivers betray their patients like that? And to add insult to injury, both the hospital staff and police testified that she spoken unemotionally in a flat tone.

I wish Patel had not spoken to the police. I believe that the prosecution's case would have been much weaker but even as I say this, my gut instinct tells me that Patel would have always made the choice to cooperate with the police.

She is an Indian woman. From early childhood, she has been taught, like all of us have been, to be helpful, to be dutiful, to honour elders, to respect authority figures, to explain yourself, be respectful and stay calm. You do not raise your voice, you do not show emotion like excitement and anger.

Good girls from good families follow a code of conduct. I know because I was given the same verbal handbook.

So here is my question: Did Purvi Patel pay the ultimate penalty for being a good Indian girl?

Is she in jail today because she was too polite to tell the police to leave her alone because she was in pain after the surgery? As an outstanding exemplary citizen, who contributed to the American economy she has every right to refuse. She could have demanded a lawyer and she could have insisted on a discharge from a hospital which had blatantly broken every rule to honour their patient.

But she didn't. Her conditioning, her culture, her Hindu traditions and her anxiety weighed her down and so she talked. Because she too concerned and too eager to explain, to clear her name and to restore the family's honour, which she thought she has tainted by her actions.

Fortunately, the American and the Indian American advocates have seen the flaws in the case and have stood up and spoken up publicly. They have written editorials and raised awareness. They have been supporting the family emotionally and financially through fund raising.

Patel, who worked 90 hours a week, managing her family's restaurant and then coming home to cook and care for her disabled 90-year-old grandparents is strong and hopeful that she will prevail in her upcoming appeal.

Meanwhile, as the legal mess is being sorted out, I am hoping that there are some lessons learn about cultural differences. People show and express emotion verbally in many different ways.

Purvi Patel was raised to be a good Hindu girl and to be respectful and dignified. She should not be punished for that.

Last updated: April 22, 2015 | 12:36
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy