No one disputes that Diana Lalchan killed her husband.
Around midnight on March 28, 2013, in their Southwest Washington condo, she fired three bullets, one of them into Christopher Lalchan’s head, she acknowledges.
Back then, Diana Lalchan was a 27-year-old pharmacist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, married to a man who was 36 and struggling to find a career. Her attorney says the shooting was self-defense against a violent spouse whose abuse had never been reported to police. But prosecutors allege it was first-degree murder.
Now, after six years of pretrial delays in D.C. Superior Court, it will be up to a jury to decide whether Lalchan was justified in pulling the trigger.
“She did the only thing she could do to protect herself,” defense lawyer Arthur Ago said Thursday in his opening statement in his client’s murder trial. As Lalchan sat facing the jury, Ago added: “She did the only thing she could do to save her own life. She did the thing that the law allows her to do.”
He said, “She just wanted the violence to stop.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Wright rejected Lalchan’s assertion that she was in grave peril that night. “No cries for help” were heard by neighbors, Wright said in her opening remarks, before the trial recessed until Monday. There was “no 911 call” by Diana Lalchan before the shots and “no signs of a struggle” in the condo when police arrived.
Spent shell casings found scattered in the home, one of them several feet from her husband’s body, indicated that she attacked him, the prosecutor said.
“What you have is Christopher Lalchan facedown with a bullet hole in the back of his head,” while his wife was uninjured, Wright told the jury.
Diana Lalchan, born Diana Chang, a daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., in a religiously strict household, Ago said in court. He said she was required to attend worship services “three, four, five nights a week and all day Sunday” and was virtually forbidden to socialize with people who were not congregants of her family’s church.
She met Christopher Lalchan, a church member, in 2008, the year she received a doctorate in pharmacy from the University of Maryland. “She had never had a boyfriend before,” Ago said. He said she was devoted to Lalchan, who had been born and raised in Trinidad. “She had never dated before. This was all new to her.”
After their wedding in 2008, Christopher Lalchan was chronically unemployed, Ago said. Poor eyesight stymied his dreams of military service, and a hoped-for career in politics never got started, leaving him frustrated and easily angered, the lawyer said.
“There were warning signs” in the marriage, Ago told the jury. “They argued all the time,” and soon he started to get “physical with her.” The violence grew steadily worse until he occasionally “strangled her into unconsciousness,” Ago said. He said she never reported the abuse because she did not want to hinder her husband’s chances of finding a job.
For hours on March 27, 2013, until around midnight, the two argued in their condo about her intent to leave him, Ago said.
Eventually, Christopher Lalchan became “quiet” and “rigid,” which Diana Lalchan knew was a sign that he was about to violently erupt, Ago said. He said she grabbed a handgun off a TV stand and started shooting “while he was coming toward her.”
However, when police arrived at the condo in the 1200 block of 4th Street SW, responding to a 911 call from Diana Lalchan at 12:06 a.m., the scene they encountered told a story of murder, not self-defense, prosecutor Wright said in court.
According to a police affidavit, Christopher Lalchan was on the living room floor. One shell casing was next to his right foot, “one shell casing was found in the hallway near the bedroom door that leads to the living room, and a third shell casing was found on top of the air mattress in the living room several feet from the decedent.”
Addressing the jury, Wright implied that the scattered shells were evidence that Christopher Lalchan had been retreating. “Location, location, location,” she kept saying.
She described him as a man who “had the American Dream . . .to come to the United States to better himself,” leaving Trinidad to attend college in Maryland. “He loved to fish,” Wright said. “He loved playing music, the drums. And he loved his wife,” before she shot him “directly in the back of the head” as he ducked on the floor from earlier shots.
Wright played a recording of Diana Lalchan’s 911 call for the jurors, in which her voice might be construed as sounding calm, although Ago said his client was in “shock.” The call-taker had trouble getting Lalchan to say what the emergency was.
“Do you need police or ambulance?” the call-taker asked, to which she replied, “Police.” Yet she said she was afraid to approach her husband on the floor to see whether he was still alive. In court, Wright ridiculed her responses. Unless she wanted him dead, the prosecutor said, “who in this case doesn’t ask for an ambulance?”
Wright also made it clear that the prosecution will rely heavily on Diana Lalchan’s appearance and alleged statements to authorities on the night of the killing.
“The defendant did not appear to have any injuries, except a small bruise on her left arm which she stated she received while training at a martial arts class,” police said in the affidavit. During an interview, “she stated that [her husband] did not physically assault her that night nor did he threaten physical harm.”