Raminder Kaur, a tiny 64-year-old woman, was on trial for murder last month, and she had a remarkable story that she wanted jurors to hear. The questions now being discussed in legal circles around Maryland: Did her own attorney halt her from telling it, and could it have saved her from spending the rest of her life in prison?
The controversy marks the latest chapter in what already was one of the region’s most colorful murder trials this year, one that led to first-degree murder convictions against Kaur and her husband, Baldeo Taneja, 63, a PhD-level biostatistician. Both were found guilty Aug. 7 of killing Taneja’s former wife after the husband became furious about alimony payments.
But less than two weeks after their convictions, Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender took the unusual step of immediately asking for a new trial on behalf of Kaur because of what it described as poor lawyering by her attorney, Alan Drew.
“This client deserved a vigorous defense, and she didn’t get it,” Paul B. DeWolfe, the chief public defender, said this month about Drew, a staff attorney for the public defender’s office who was based in Montgomery County.
During the trial, prosecutors alleged that on Oct. 11, 2013, Kaur and Taneja traveled from their home in Tennessee, spent the night at a Red Roof Inn near Gaithersburg, woke up and drove to the ex-wife’s nearby neighborhood. When she exited her apartment building, prosecutors argued, Kaur walked up, pulled out a snub-nosed revolver and shot her three times. The couple drove off, made their way to a nearby Amway conference, checked in long enough to try to establish an alibi and headed home.
But according to a motion for a new trial submitted by the Maryland public defender’s office, midway through the trial, Kaur had a private conversation — on a Monday — about strategy with Drew. She told him that on the preceding Friday evening, as she and her husband rode in a law-
enforcement van to the county jail, her husband confessed to her that he alone had shot his ex-wife. Kaur told Drew she wanted to testify about the specifics: Her husband, she said, told her that after they checked in at the Red Roof Inn, he “dosed” her with medicine so she’d oversleep. Then he slipped out, disguised himself as a woman by donning a blouse and a wig he’d bought at a Halloween costume store and shot his ex-wife.
Kaur also wanted to tell jurors that she didn’t know her husband had brought guns on their trip to Maryland, that it was his decision to suddenly leave the Amway conference and that he had told her last year that he had “finished” his ex-wife. The public defender’s office, in its request for a new trial, also asserted that Drew didn’t meet in person with Kaur as the trial approached and failed to call key witnesses in her defense.
Montgomery Circuit Judge Michael D. Mason, who presided over the trial, has yet to rule on the request for a new trial.
In court filings, the Office of the Public Defender submitted an affidavit that both Drew and Kaur signed. They were identified as AD and RK.
“AD told RK that it was his decision that she would not testify,” part of the affidavit states, with the word his underlined. “RK told AD that she wanted to testify. AD told her that the court would not permit her to testify because she wanted to testify about Mr. Taneja’s admission, and he (Mr. Taneja) could stop her from testifying. AD did not tell RK that the issue or question could be presented to the judge.”
Drew resigned from his position about the same time that the head public defender’s office filed the request for the new trial. He declined to comment, saying the case is pending and Kaur is no longer his client.
His sudden departure stunned Montgomery County defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges. The well-respected 65-year-old was a supervising attorney in the county’s public defender felony division. He carried a heavy caseload of clients and recently had been assigned a series of defendants who’d allegedly committed heinous crimes while leaving behind overwhelming proof.
“Everything I’ve ever observed or heard about Alan was that he was one of the hardest workers in Montgomery’s public defender’s office, that he knew case law very well and that he cared about his job,” said Andy Jezic, a former Montgomery prosecutor and now a defense attorney.
Jezic had a front-row seat to Drew’s lawyering in Kaur’s trial because he represented her husband, who was being tried at the same time. Jezic said he wasn’t privy to conversations that Drew had with Kaur and was surprised by what Drew acknowledged in the recent court filing. “The admissions that Alan made in the affidavit were inconsistent with everything I knew about him,” Jezic said.
As the debate over Drew’s services ramps up, one of his biggest supporters is the office that convicted Kaur. In court papers filed Monday, prosecutors indicated that whatever lawyering questions are at issue, they wouldn’t have changed the verdict. And the prosecutors have made it clear they are digging in for a fight, saying they are prepared to subpoena detailed records from the public defender’s office. Among those documents: Drew’s entire employment file, which could speak to whether he felt pressured into signing the affidavit.
“We think there are multiple areas that need to be explored before we know the true facts,” said John McCarthy, the top prosecutor in Montgomery County. “Alan was a very fine lawyer.”
There were times, before the trial, when it seemed that Drew was the one trying to get Kaur to testify. At a hearing in early July, he told the judge he was dealing with cultural issues of his client’s native India, which played a role in making her feel subservient to her husband.
“I intend, along with the help of the cultural expert, to call her in her own defense,” Drew said, according to a recording of the hearing. “We are going to do everything we can to make her testify in this case, regardless of her cultural issues.”
It is impossible to know how jurors would have reacted to Kaur’s testimony. But a review of trial testimony and court records, as well as interviews with other defense lawyers, certainly allows for two schools of thought.
In one, the testimony would have backfired. Jurors would have wondered why she didn’t report her initial suspicions from last year, and jurors could have viewed the testimony about the conversation in the van as too self-serving.
Certainly, prosecutors could have aggressively cross-examined her. And Jezic, the attorney for Kaur’s husband, also would have pounced: “I would have made the point that she was making this up and throwing her husband under the bus to save her own skin.”
There also were potential legal obstacles to Kaur’s testifying, related to general rules against hearsay and private conversations between spouses. But they could have been overcome, said several attorneys. And by combining Kaur’s testimony with that of other witnesses, Drew could have presented his client as too frightened to immediately report her suspicions. It would have played into her diminutive appearance — 5-foot-2, with graying hair — and given jurors an alternative explanation for one of the prosecutors’ key assertions, that Kaur’s husband’s DNA was found on the murder weapon because he cleaned it after Kaur used it.
“Trial counsel’s decision not to permit Ms. Kaur to testify renders the adversary process itself presumptively unreliable,” the public defender’s office wrote in a court filing, “and is a structural, constitutional error of the highest magnitude. No remedy short of a new trial can cure this error.”