'Santa' trial for techie death

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 23.06.08

Houston, June 22 (PTI): A murder trial opened here, three years after a young Indian software professional was allegedly shot dead in a park while meditating.

Akhil Chopra, 28, was killed in a west Houston park in August 2005.

Howard Dale Bellamy, 24, has been charged with murdering Chopra and faces a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole.

In his opening statement before district judge Marc Carter, assistant district attorney Shannon Davis said Bellamy shot and killed Chopra, took his wallet and then gave away the contents to friends “like it was Christmas and he was Santa”.

Chopra, a computer professional and a volunteer for the Hindu Students Council, came to the US from India in 2001 to study for a master’s degree.

He had been a very active member of the community. Every Sunday, he was the voice of the news in Hindi for the Sanatan radio programme.

His friends said Chopra could have been meditating in the park near his office when the incident happened.

Bellamy, however, told jurors after the trial opened this week in Harris county district court that he and his girlfriend spent time with his grandmother and then went to eat a pizza during the time Chopra was robbed and shot in the temple with a .38-caliber revolver.

But his girlfriend denied Bellamy’s alibi, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Bellamy, whose grandmother has since died, admitted to being a member of a street gang.

Prosecutor Wendy Baker told jurors that the murder was “just a senseless act of violence”.

“Akhil Chopra was all alone in that park meditating,” Baker said. “And that man killed him after he beat the hell out of him.”

Defence attorney Doug Durham said Bellamy’s girlfriend, Domonique Alston, could not be trusted and was lying to protect another gang member.

“I can’t say it’s closure by any means,” said Natalie Duran-Ariz, one of Chopra’s co-workers who watched the start of the trial. “Really and truly, I think what we want to know is ‘why?’”

Bellamy’s 21-year-old sister Tandra said her brother would finally get his day in court after being held in jail since his arrest in August 2005.

“He can get his point across that he’s not guilty, and he is going to come home,” she said.

The trial was delayed partly because of the time required to gather evidence and analyse it, said Durham.

Also, prosecutors had changed in the course of trial preparation, said Baker.

Jurors are expected to continue deliberating Bellamy’s fate on Monday.

The district attorney’s office is not seeking death penalty based on the facts of the crime and Bellamy’s criminal history, said Scott Durfee, a spokesman for the Harris county district attorney’s office.