The case against a man accused of killing his wife and three other family members in West Chester Twp. began again Monday morning with an interpreter fluent in Punjabi whispering over his shoulder at the defense table.
Last week, Butler County Common Pleas Judge Greg Howard ordered that Gurpreet Singh’s case start over with arraignment of the indictment after his defense team questioned if the native of India understood court proceeds because English is not his native language.
MORE: Butler County’s most notorious murder case of 2019 has to start over
Singh, 37, is charged with four counts of aggravated murder stemming from the April 28 incident. With specifications of using a firearm and killing two or more persons, Singh faces the death penalty if convicted.
Singh is accused of killing his wife, Shalinderjit Kaur, 39; his in-laws, Hakikat Singh Pannag, 59, and Parmjit Kaur, 62; and his aunt by marriage, Amarjit Kaur, 58, at their apartment. All died of gunshot wounds.
After a second bond hearing on Dec. 16, where the judge again ordered Singh be held without bond, a member of the defense team said Singh asked questions about the proceeding which led him to believe Singh may not understand what was happening in the courtroom.
The defense team of Charles H. and Charles M. Rittgers, Neal Schuett and J.R. Bernans filed a motion asking for an interpreter to be assigned for all hearings moving forward.
Upset by the timing of the motion and the absence of several defense team members, Howard ruled the entire case must begin again with an interpreter present for each moment.
MORE: Judge’very irritated’ during hearing for case against man in West Chester quadruple homicide
Howard, who litigated many death penalty cases as a defense attorney, said he wanted to prevent a “stupid technicality” from leading to a possible appeal if Singh were convicted, so he assigned an interpreter.
On Monday morning, Singh, an interpreter and all four members of the defense team were present when Singh was again arraigned, and the lengthy indictment was again read in open court. For the third time, bond was denied for Singh.
Howard asked the defense team to name a lead attorney, and Schuett was appointed. The judge said he wanted to assure the attorneys trying the case were present for all hearings.
“This is a team issue because of the due process that must be afforded the defendant because of the capital indictment …,” Howard said.
The defense indicated that if all members of the team were required to be present, Charles H. Rittgers would withdraw. He will be unavailable for any hearings in early 2020. The trial is scheduled to begin in September.
“Believe me, our client Mr. Singh is going to get the best defense possible,” Charles H. Rittgers said.
The defense team requested a short recess and met with Singh with an interpreter present. After that, a pretrial hearing was set for Jan. 30, at which all motions previously filed and ruled on by the judge will again be considered.
MORE: What does a 911 call say about an accused murderer’s ability to understand English
Those motions include about a half dozen filed by the the defense, including requests to close all pre-trial hearings and that thousands of dollars seized by police at the crime scene be returned to Singh.
After the hearing, Charles H. Rittgers said the judge would not require him to withdraw from the case. He said the defense team had not communicated with Singh through an interpreter previously, and some of the legal language could have caused his difficulty in understanding.
“I was not concerned until after the hearing when the judge heard our motion on bond …,” he said. “I thought out of an abundance of caution I should file a motion to have an interpreter there.”
Charles H. Rittgers said the speed at which the judge and others were talking could have also impaired Singh’s understanding of what was happening.
“It is hard to go from his native language to English,” he said.