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Iraqi man goes on trial for California death first probed as hate crime

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The trial of an Iraqi-American man got under way in San Diego on Tuesday on charges he beat his wife to death, a 2012 killing first investigated as a possible anti-Muslim hate crime but later said by prosecutors to be the result of domestic violence.

Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother of five, was found in March 2012 bludgeoned in her home in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, home to a large Arab-American population, and died of her injuries several days later.

A note found at the scene suggested Alawadi might have been targeted because of her ethnicity, and in a sign of how closely the case was being watched, the U.S. State Department expressed condolences for her death. Iraqi government officials attended her funeral in Iraq.

Police said at the time of Alawadi's slaying that they were considering hate as a motive, but in November arrested Alawadi's husband, Kassim Alhimidi. Court papers filed in the case later painted a portrait of a family in turmoil.

Alhimidi sobbed in court as opening statements began in the case on Tuesday and prosecutors played an audio recording of the couple's daughter calling 911, local NBC7 TV reported.

"Mr. Alhimidi, please understand that these jurors need to hear all this evidence. They're not going to be able to hear the evidence if you're being louder than the testimony or, in this case, the 911 tape. You need to do your best to stop this," San Diego Superior Court Judge William McGrath told him, according to the station.

According to a search warrant affidavit filed by police last April, a relative of Alawadi told detectives she had been planning on divorcing her husband and moving to Texas. Divorce papers were found in her car.

Further complicating the troubled emerging portrait of the family were indications that daughter Fatima Alhimidi, then 17, had felt pressure to marry her cousin against her will, according to court papers.

It was Fatima who found her mother unconscious and bleeding after the attack, struck at least six times by a heavy object.

The daughter told police at the time that she heard her mother squeal, followed by the sound of breaking glass, which she took to be her mother dropping a plate. Ten minutes later, she said, she discovered her mother on the floor and called 911.

Alawadi arrived in the United States in 1993. She was buried in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Iraq's capital, Baghdad.

El Cajon is in the heart of east San Diego County, which is home to the second largest Iraqi community in the United States, behind Detroit. More than half of El Cajon's 100,000 residents are of Middle Eastern descent.

(Reporting by Marty Graham; Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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