Court tries to digest fried rice implications

Sat, Jun 2, 2012, 01:00

As the trial drifted to the end of its second week, the issue of a takeaway was top of the menu

FRIED RICE was on the menu in courtroom number five yesterday.

Specifically, the takeaway that Insp Luciano Gerard and his colleagues at the major crime investigation team ate on the evening of January 12th last year – day two of their inquiry into Michaela McAreavey’s killing.

That evening, some officers went out to collect food for the team after a long day at work. The suspect in custody, Avinash Treebhoowoon, was too tired to give a statement, but his lawyer, Ravi Rutnah, was still at the station when the food arrived.

“It was a cordial, friendly atmosphere,” Gerard told the court on Thursday. “I still remember there was fried rice, and I’m not fond of fried rice so I gave him my portion – it was takeaway.”

Even John McAreavey’s father, Brendan, allowed himself a wry smile at that, and the questioning moved on. But the defence, it turned out, had no intention of letting it go. The claim about Rutnah enjoying a convivial meal with police is more important than it sounds. He withdrew from the trial this week after Gerard made this claim and said Rutnah was also present when his client, Treebhoowoon, gave a full confession.

The accused man says he was beaten and tortured into signing that admission, and his legal team argue they were left furious by repeated refusals of permission to meet their client in private in the days after the killing. If Gerard’s claim were true and Rutnah was enjoying a relaxed meal with officers on January 12th, it would paint a different picture of the time.

So, when Gerard returned to the stand for cross-examination yesterday, Sandeep Teeluckdharry – Treebhoowoon’s lead barrister – zoned in on the fried rice. “Your officers brought fried rice for you, and Coca-Cola?” he began.

The lawyer wanted to know precisely at what time the fried rice arrived. Was Supt Yusuf Soopun, Gerard’s direct superior, present? “You gave your fried rice to Mr Rutnah. At what time?”

It was hot and stuffy in court. An older woman in the public gallery – the mother of one of the defendants – nodded off.

“It must be after 20.33, my lord,” the policeman replied.

But Teeluckdharry had spotted an inconsistency in the rice story. His voice rose dramatically. According to a statement given by Soopun last July, the court was told, he gave his fried rice to Rutnah – and it was on January 13th, not the 12th.

Gerard responded slowly, gravely. “I. Shared. My. Rice. With. Mr Rutnah. If Mr Soopun gave a statement where he says the 13th, I would say Mr Soopun is making an error. I am totally sure of that.”

Then Teeluckdharry spelled out his point. “I put it to you that neither your version nor that of Mr Soopun is correct,” he intoned.

“It was my fried rice and I gave it to Mr Rutnah,” came the response.

The allegation about his colleague, Teeluckdharry said, was a “below-the-belt” attack on Treebhoowoon’s legal representative, who had been forced to step down from the trial because of it. At that, prosecution counsel Mehdi Manrakhan rose swiftly to his feet. “What allegation? Eating fried rice?”

Judge Prithviraj Fecknah is growing exasperated with Teeluckdharry.

His questions are laboured, long-winded and, as the judge pointed out yesterday, often irrelevant to the witness on the stand. As he talked Gerard through endless police logs and his cross-examination stretched into its sixth hour, Teeluckdharry was warned by the judge to speed it up.

All eyes are on the clock – or is it the calendar? – these days. Two weeks gone, and only 12 out of more than 40 witnesses have so far given evidence.

“The thing is, counsel,” said Fecknah. “Everybody, including the jury and myself, are asking ourselves: ‘When are we going to be done with this?’”

Teeluckdharry was unrepentant. “I understand the time frame but my client could be sent to hell for 60 years and I will need to take as long as I need to take,” he said.

The questions resumed, the room seemed to grow more humid, and the trial drifted towards the end of its second week.