India awaits verdict in sensational double-murder

India awaits verdict in sensational double-murder

NEW DELHI - One of India's most sensational criminal trials - which has raised issues of police incompetence, sex with servants and media ethics - comes to a close Monday when a dentist couple will learn if they are to be convicted of killing their daughter.

Rajesh and Nupur Talwar from the affluent New Delhi suburb of Noida are accused of murdering their only child, 14-year-old Aarushi, and their 45-year-old domestic worker Hemraj by slitting their throats "with clinical precision".

The murder case from 2008 has created a nation of armchair detectives debating every twist in the investigation and trial, turned the Talwars into household names, and polarised public opinion.

Federal police say Aarushi was killed in a fit of rage when her parents found her with the servant in a "objectionable" situation while the couple insist they are victims of a botched police probe and vigilante justice.

"I never believed such a thing could happen to us. I believed in the Indian justice system," Rajesh told AFP in a recent interview outside the decrepit courtroom where the witness stand is held together by rope.

The prosecution concedes there is no forensic or material evidence against the pair, basing its case on the "last-seen theory" - which holds that the victims were last seen with the accused.

"All the circumstantial evidence" is against the Talwars and they "misled the investigators and destroyed evidence", prosecutor R.K. Saini told the court in his summing-up earlier this month.

Botched investigation

The saga began on a baking 45-degree (113 Fahrenheit) May morning five years ago when Aarushi was found dead on her bed at home, covered with a white blanket.

Police initially called it an "open and shut case", blaming the missing Nepalese servant for the murder - only to discover his badly decomposed body on the roof a day later.

His throat was also cut and he had suffered a head wound.

The police then arrested Rajesh Talwar's Nepalese dental assistant along with two local servants - Hemraj's friends. They accused them of the murders after lie-detector tests suggested they sought to attack Aarushi only to meet resistance from Hemraj.

There was no hard proof so they were freed.

The shambolic probe - investigators failed to seal the scene of the crime allowing journalists to enter the house, or find the second body for 24 hours - prompted police to shut the case in 2010 citing no substantial evidence.

The Talwars then insisted they wanted the killers found and petitioned the court to reopen the case but they were then to find themselves charged with the murder.

Media frenzy

A TV interview with Aarushi's mother days after the murder in which many viewed her as unnaturally calm helped turn public opinion against the couple, leading to headlines such as "Only Parents Could Have Killed Aarushi".

Lurid newspaper reports, often based on quotes from unnamed police officers, appeared about the couple's lives, demonising them as decadent and unrepentant, even part of a wife-swapping club.

Their defence team, led by one of India's most pre-eminent lawyers who is working for free, believe the frenzied media coverage and police incompetence prejudiced their chances of getting justice.

"The big mathematical equation for the prosecution is two people died so the other two people in the house must have done it," defence lawyer Rebecca John told AFP. "They refuse to admit the possibility of an outsider."

John believes that "in any other country, such third-rate evidence would not have seen the light of day."

"If you allow to trials like this to happen, you and I could be the next target - if you allow police such power, no one is safe."

Questions have been raised about how the parents could have slept through the commotion of a double-murder, but the defence says the air-conditioner in their room muffled all sound.

The police also insist the slicing of the throats of Aarushi and Hemraj was done by a medical professional using a surgical instrument, pointing the finger at the Talwars. They say a golf club at the house was used to beat the victims.

Defence medical experts said the throats could have been cut by a khukri, a Nepalese knife, and a golf club would have caused a "depressed fracture" not the "hairline fracture" found on the two.

India's top investigative magazine Tehelka published the latest in a series of reports casting doubt on the police probe and forensic evidence in June this year.

"Events are unfolding that might eventually go down as one of the most shameful scandals in India's legal history," wrote managing editor Shoma Chaudhury.

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