Prosecution closes in long running murder trial

Brent Stanaway, opened the closing address for the prosecution’s case at 2.20pm on Wednesday 17 July 2013. It has all come down to this. The death of a young farm worker in the early hours of the morning of Thursday 23 February 2012, and the burning of his body and the farmhouse where he lived.

The two co-accused, Viraj Alahakoon and Prawesh Sawal have been in prison, remanded in custody since just a few days after the February event. There is no dispute that at least one of the men killed Sameera Battelage. But both men are claiming ‘it wasn’t me, your honour, the other guy did it’.

Later, counsel for both men will have their chance to address the jury in their closing arguments. For now, it is the prosecution’s turn.

Prosecutor Stanaway started going over the facts of which there is no doubt. A man is dead with serious cutting wounds to his neck.  The strength of the prosecution case, he said, left the two co-accused with little left, other than simply to blame each other.

There were eight key aspects prosecutor Stanaway mentioned:-

1…  CCTV at the Oxford Workingmen’s Club

2…  Skype phonecall to a woman in New York, United States of America

3…  The texts exchanged between Sawal and his partner over 22/23 February

4…  Witness statements

5…  The  two accuseds late arrival home and attempts to get partners to lie for them

6…  Cut up clothing found with “contact and dispersed blood splatter”

7…  Sameera’s chilling texts

8…  The certainty that the cutting wound was a fatal, non-survivable wound

Stanaway went on to say that “neither of the accused is in the least bit convincing”. Some of the legal issues were explained.  Section 66.1 relates to committing the offence or abetting the commission of the offence. Section 66.2 for two parties working together with a common purpose.

The jury could find cause to apply section 66.1, where Prawesh Sawal was the principal offender (in this case, the one wielding the knife) and Viraj Alahakoon a party to the offence. Alternatively the jury could find that under section 66.2 that there was a common intention to kill, among the both of them.

“Motive plays a substantial and important part in this trial” Stanaway said. Viraj’s motive he addressed first. There had been a short term sexual affair. Viraj he said was “a jealous and possessive man” who had a history of domestic violence against women. In a previous “agreed fact” document (for which Viraj is still to be formally convicted and sentenced) he admitted to threatening with a knife, and male-assault-female being the cutting off of a woman’s hair.

Regarding the first of the two witnesses who have name suppression, prosecutor Stanaway said she was “obviously an educated and devout witness”.

Prosecutor Stanaway went on to quote from the court record earlier in the trial. The first witness with name suppression had said “I was so much suffering, I made a mistake. Viraj was upset about gossip in Sri Lankan community”.

Viraj, Stanaway went on to say, had previously been involved in “serious and persistent domestic violence”.

Motive for Prawesh Sawal was next on the prosecutor’s radar. He had, briefly at least, also been interested in the woman who had had  the affair with Sameera. Prawesh was consumed by the fact of the affair and kept bringing it up, when he would hang around almost every day, with Viraj in his garage.

Regarding the reasons claimed for the visits out to Oxford on the evenings of 20 and 22 February, prosecutor Stanaway said “none of those really wash, none bear scrutiny”. And that “both (men) are angry, the affair is consuming them both”.

Sameera had been very surprised when the men turned up at his house. Also, why had a container of petrol been taken out on both occasions, the 20 and 22 of February ? The petrol was taken out on both occasions for “a deeply sinister purpose” Stanaway claimed. Previous witness testimony was that the lawns at Viraj’s house had already been mowed. There was therefore no reason to be driving around with a can of petrol still in the car.

When the two accused had arrived at Sameera’s at about 8.30pm,  he was just finishing his dinner, in the middle of Skyping a friend overseas and preparing to go to bed (as a farm worker he was required to get up at about 4am to begin work).

Sameera had no doubt what they were there for and it wasn’t innocent, prosecutor Stanaway told the jury. He was a (physically strong) dairy-farm worker with a martial-arts background. “Sameera was expecting trouble, his texts tell that”, he said.

An attack on Sameera would require both accused, it would take two men. There was also the issue that Prawesh Sawal had refused his partner’s offer of a ride out and back with her on Monday evening. Later, both of the men had asked their respective partners to lie about what time they arrived back in Christchurch. And both men have a familiarity with knives, he said.

(Sorry but I have an issue with that small part of Prosecutor Stanaway’s statement. ALL ADULTS in New Zealand ‘have a familiarity with knives’. EVERY kitchen has knives, sometimes sharp ones, often they’re all blunt dammit ! In Kosher Jewish kitchens, the knives may be stored in separate drawers. Old pensioner’s kitchens have knives, student flats have broken knives from being used on motorcycle repairs… the list goes on. Even people who usually buy sliced bread still have knives in their kitchens ! I’m sorry Mr Stanaway, you were drawing a bit of a long bow there.)

Prawesh Sawal has claimed in court that he was “bait”. Unwitting and unwilling. However when his partner, at police request, secretly wore a “wire” (sound recording device) during a visit with him at the police station soon after his arrest, he never mentioned to her the concept of him being bait. (Editor’s note: sorry I may have miss-heard something here. Whether, or not, he admitted to being bait while being secretly recorded, I will need to verify later and update this entry. However I am leaving this paragraph in here for now, as it is my best an honest recollection of what I heard said in court at the time.)

Prosecutor Stanaway gave details of the fire. Quoting from the evidence of (recently retired) fire officer Graeme Reid who examined the scene. He estimated that between five and siz litres of accelerant had been poured through the kitchen, living-room and laundry areas, and lit from outside the house.  In “a determined effort to consume Sameera and destroy forensic evidence in the house” he said.

Both of the accused men gave similar false statements to police, which he claimed showed planning and purpose. This he said showed their “agreement and common intent and purpose”.

The taking of petrol out to Oxford on both the 20th and the 22nd of February should not be forgotten. Viraj had earlier claimed he wasn’t sure if Sameera was dead or not, but he made no attempt to call for an ambulance. Prosecutor Stanaway said that all throughout, Viraj had attempted to minimise and downplay his previous acts of violence towards women.

As prosecutor Stanaway’s closing address to the jury continued, the “extraordinary apology”  was then mentioned. Those in the court-room at the time may well recall, that soon after he started in the witness box, Viraj Alahakoon in responding to a question from defence counsel, totally begged the question and went off in a long rambling statement. It was in part an apology to Sameera’s father and family.  

In part, Viraj’s  statement included “I tried hard to stop what I could”.  (Note. I think we have to consider that there may have been some cultural aspects in play here, something ‘lost in translation’ to those of us from a Western European background. However, having experienced this incident at the time, it was an extraordinary piece of testimony for the accused to come out with.)

Prosecutor Stanaway concluded by saying that this was a “joint enterprise” with both of the accused travelling out to Oxford, on both the 20th and 22nd of February with intent to kill. Prawesh he said, inflicted the fatal cuts to Sameera’s neck.  Who aided, abetted or procured him to do that ? Viraj actively encouraged Prawesh to kill Sameera, he said.  Both of the accused had formed a common intention to kill Sameera.

It was for this reason, that prosecutor Stanaway said verdicts of manslaughter would not be appropriate. The only suitable verdicts for the jury to return would be murder and arson. With that, the prosecution’s case was closed.

John Brandts-Giesen, counsel for Sawal Prawesh kindly furnished a transcript of his closing statement, it will be a useful supplement to my notes when I write up a review of his closing address.

(Note this is the first murder trial I have covered from (almost) the very beginning. (I missed just the first two days, but since then have only missed only the occasional day or afternoon).   Yesterday I had a few words with an “indirect victim” of this whole tragic situation. It has moved me deeply as it brought home to me the “collateral damage” that such violence causes not just to the  people directly involved, but also to the wider community. Kia Kaha.)

Explanatory note on names. Sometimes inconsistencies exist in names, and this can be caused by a number of factors, especially when non-European names are “Anglicised” so they can be written using a standard English alphabet. Other factors can be “tribal” names used in some cultures or names which change over the course of life. In some cultures, married women do not assume their husband’s surname and in some countries the surname or family-name goes first and the Christian or given name goes afterwards. Sometimes names can have a numeric meaning also. Much can be ‘lost in translation’. The most common language spoken in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. This is usually written using a combination of two alphabets, which can trace their roots back thousands of years. The deceased man in the case currently before the court, has been referred to variously as Sameera Chandrasena and Sameera Madurangana Manikka Battelage. On some occasions he has been referred to as “Rassy”. The two co-accused’s full names are listed as Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Mudijanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon. No offence is intended to any culture, or individual person with respect to the Anglicisation and use of names. )

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