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Dublin: 22 °C Wednesday 23 July, 2014

Michaela McAreavey murder trial: the major talking points

TheJournal.ie takes a look back at the two-month trial, recapping the key moments of a case that has captivated a local audience and devastated two Irish families.

Family handout photo of John and Michaela McAreavey at the Giant's Causeway, in North Antrim.
Family handout photo of John and Michaela McAreavey at the Giant's Causeway, in North Antrim.
Image: Family handout/PA Archive/Press Association Images

MICHAELA MCAREAVEY’S DEATH, just days after she married her long-time love John, shocked two nations back on 10 January 2011.

When Mauritius authorities confirmed that the daughter of Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte was strangled while on honeymoon at the Legends Hotel, a manhunt for her killers began.

A country which relies on its tourism sector, Mauritius was keen to catch the culprits and bring them to justice as soon as possible. But the trial of the two men accused of the 27-year-old teacher’s murder has been anything but swift and uncomplicated.

The accused – Sandip Moneea and Avinash Treebhoowoon – were found not guilty of the murder.

What was initially scheduled as a two-week trial dragged on for almost eight weeks and attracted criticism from the Harte and McAreavey families over certain elements of proceedings, including the treatment of the victim’s husband and the conduct of the defence team.

Here, TheJournal.ie takes a look back at the past two months in the Port Louis courthouse, recapping the major talking points of a case that has captivated a local audience and devastated two Irish families.

The heartbreaking testimony: ‘what are you crying about?’

Among the legal rows, the sometimes-flamboyant behaviour of the defence team and the pantomime-style reactions from the public gallery, it was sometimes a shock when the proceedings were pared back to it’s central focus – the tragic and untimely death of a young woman about to embark on married life for the first time.

Details of 10 January 2011 were rehashed throughout the course of the eight weeks but no evidence was more harrowing than the testimony of Michaela’s new husband John. He took to the stand on 6 June to give his account of how the events of that fateful day unfolded.

Teary-eyed and visibly very emotional, he talked about what a wonderful person Michaela was and how she completed his life.

As she was the only daughter of the family, she was loved by her parents, cherished by her brothers. She had so many qualities that are difficult to explain. She was a deeply religious person, charming and full of life, full of happiness. I can’t find words to say how much she meant to me.

John also told the court how it was “love at first sight” when he met Michaela back in 2005 in university. His testimony lasted for three-and-a-half hours. During the proceedings, his sister Claire asked for her brother to be given some water.

McAreavey outlined the day he and Michaela were having on 10 January – they breakfasted together, he had played golf while she sunbathed and then they rejoined for lunch. He told the court that he obviously wishes he – and not she – had gone back to room 1025 to get the dark chocolate Kit Kats for their tea. While waiting for her to return from the room with the treats, he said he took a couple of photos and watched a bit of a video. When she did not come back, he went to investigate.

My wife was killed. My life changed since that day. My dreams are shattered forever I miss her a lot. Everything is over for me. My life was destroyed.

Moving on to the darker days after her murder, John gave details about the time he spent at the police station and how one officer asked him: “Why are you crying? You are still young. You can go find another wife.”

John McAreavey arriving to the Port Louis courthouse on 6 June – the day he gave his testimony. He was supported by his sister Claire and father Brendan. (Image: Paul Faith/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

The sex manual

As he was due to give testimony for the prosecution, John was not in court for a number of angry exchanges which upset both the McAreavey and Harte families. During the first week of evidence, prosecutors objected strongly to a line of questioning pursued by the defence when they brought up the existence of a sex guide in the couple’s room. Lawyers for Moneea and Treebhoowoon had asked police if they queried whether the manual contained violent material.

Lawyers for the prosecution said that the contents of the book had no connection with the crime. The exchanges between both teams got so heated on one particular day that the hearing had to be temporarily adjourned. Minors were also asked to leave the courtroom.

Later, BBC News was told that the booklet was an insert from the woman’s magazine Cosmopolitan, which Michaela had purchased at the airport.

The questionable tactics of the defence team and the intrusions into the private honeymoon being enjoyed by the young couple led the families to issue the following joint statement:

Obviously both families are very distressed and dismayed at any attempt to denigrate the memory of Michaela. However, they would like to thank the many family, friends and the wider public for their continued support and prayers as they endure this ordeal. They would particularly ask that people continue to pray so that John may be granted the necessary strength to get through the very difficult and painful days ahead.

The German chef

Grainy footage from a CCTV camera at the reception of the Mauritius hotel saw a German chef dragged into the case. Irish newspaper The Star first identified the man in the controversial tape, not as John McAreavey as the defence team had tried to indicate, but as Harald Hoyer, a German man who had been staying in the same hotel with his partner the day of the murder.

He later told RTÉ that he would be prepared to give evidence in court that he was the man shown in the video arguing with his girlfriend Savarese Graziella:

Yes, I would certainly do that. I could also give an affidavit here in Germany, I could do it in the German legal system or with the German police. But of course I would do that. If I could definitely help the husband of Michaela, I would do that, yes.

The CCTV footage was eventually shown to the jury but the assistant police commissioner said he was 100 per cent satisfied that it did not feature the McAreaveys. Yoosoof Soopun also produced documentation to the court relating to the German couple. Eventually the defence team said they would not be taking the matter any further. The judge told the jury this meant the identity of the couple in the CCTV footage was no longer an issue for them.

The police on trial

Mauritian Police Chief Inspector Luciano Gerard arriving at the Port Louis courthouse. (Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images)

Throughout the case, it often seemed that the police forces in Mauritius were as much on trial as the accused. As the spotlight was again and again pointed on the investigation, apparent holes, inaccuracies and inconsistencies were highlighted in court.

Lawyers for Treebhoowoon consistently alleged that police beat him brutally in order to obtain a confession about the murder. Defence counsel Sanjeev Teeluckdharry severely criticised the police investigation, stating that his client admitted involvement only after being exposed to vicious torture methods.

Police brutality

Claims of police brutality extended to alleged incidences of forms of water torture, during which Treebhoowoon said he couldn’t breathe and was vomiting blood. He also said that none of the confessional statement was read to him and he signed what was put in front of him, without knowing the details.

The Major Crime Investigation Team (MCIT) has also been criticised for failing to provide solid DNA evidence against the accused, and combined with the inconsistencies discovered at the murder scene, lawyers for both Treebhoowoon and Moneea finally landed on the sloppy police probe as its major line of defence.

They believe the entire inquiry should be scrapped and restarted to ensure the real culprits are found.

Preserving the scene

In the early days of the trial, police photographer Harris Jeewooth who had only worked in the major crimes unit for four months prior to the honeymoon death and never on an actual murder case, was asked repeatedly why a number of supposedly relevant items were not captured on film. The court also heard that some items, including the dark chocolate Kit Kats that Michaela had been retrieving from the room, had allegedly been moved in the days after her murder.

All photos of the crime scene were taken only in black-and-white.

Jeewooth also confirmed that he was not instructed to take photos of the sand outside to check for footprints. The presence of a belt in the room also led to further questioning but the photographer could not recall specifics. However, the autopsy on Michaela’s body ruled out any hypothesis that she may have died of strangulation by use of a rope or belt.

Key witnesses

A senior officer at the MCIT admitted during the trial that they failed to interview a number of fellow guests at the hotel who were staying close to room 1025. Luciano Gerard also conceded that he did not know that the belt – along with a bikini top – had been found in the room after control of it had been handed back to the hotel.

Doubts were also raised about unidentified finger and palm prints discovered in the room.

In his closing address, Rama Valayden, lawyer for Moneea, said that he was angry at the police for not carrying out a number of basic checks and tests at the hotel.

“We could have solved this problem easily,” he said.

The prosecution and police still believe Michaela was killed after disturbing thieves who were stealing from her honeymoon suite.

Valayden also questioned the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness Raj Theekoy, who was originally charged with the murder. He was granted immunity when he agreed to testify against his former co-workers.

The scene of the crime

In an unexpected move, the whole courthouse packed up on 19 June to return to the scene of the crime at the renamed Lux hotel. Both of the acquitted men, along with their lawyers, were joined by the judge Prithviraj Fekna, counsel for the prosecution and the nine members of the jury. The tour was guided by staff members at the former Legends hotel. The six men and three women of the jury were brought around the golf course, reception, two restaurants and the rooms surrounding room 1025 in the De Luxe block – all places that had been mentioned throughout the trial.

The ‘I’ll be back’ moment

Ravi Rutnah, a lawyer representing Aviash Treebhoowoon, provided the most bizarre moment of the entire trial. On 30 May, just days after the jury was sworn in, the counsel for the defence quit after allegations about his conduct were made by a police witness. He told the judge he was withdrawing for ethical reasons and wanted to testify as a witness in the trial to the allegations made against him and his client. Luciano of the MCIT strongly denied all accusations of police brutality and said the defence team’s claims were “false and unfounded”.

Rutnah told the court:

It’s a professional decision that I made in the interest of justice. I will testify to tell the whole truth about what happened [after Treebhoowoon's arrest]. I am the only one who knows the whole truth.

In keeping with his extrovert style, which was becoming well-known in the court house, he then exclaimed: “I will be back in Arnold Schwarzenegger style”. That moment brought laughter from a number of law students who were frequently seen in the public gallery.

Although he was allowed to be admitted as a witness by the remaining defence team, the court never heard from him again.

The public interest

Locals gathered at the court shelter from the rain at the Supreme Court in Port Louis, Mauritius, on day seven of the trial.

Emotive murder trials often capture the attention of the public but none more so when they occur in different jurisdictions to where the victims or the accused are from. Just as the trial for the murder of British student Mereditch Kercher gained worldwide press, the Michaela McAreavey case had captivated the public in both Ireland and Mauritius. Crowds have queued up each day to gain access to the public gallery and dozens of law students have been ever-present for proceedings.

Although conditions and processes improved as the weeks went by, the first days saw curious locals and reporters fight for seats and space. Eventually a new speaker system was set up to facilitate those in the packed public gallery.

The presence of a larger audience was particularly difficult for relatives of the victim. On Tuesday, 5 June Claire McAreavey, sister to John, who has been in Port Louis for the duration of the trial, could not hold in her frustration any longer.

Turning to people who were causing a disruption in the gallery where she was sitting with her father, Brendan, she told them to “show some respect”.

Bursts of laughter from the crowds have not been unusual over the past eight weeks as certain colorful behaviour from lawyers and witnesses entertained those with only a passing interest in the trial and verdict. However, as the gravity of the situation was realised, the latter weeks of the trial have stirred a more sombre mood.

In a more serious retort on 25 June, John McAreavey said the word, “lies” – out loud and audible to the court – when Treebhoowoon’s barrister told the court about the torture his client suffered at the hands of police.

A spokesman for the family said the uncharacteristic outburst reflected the frustration and pain felt by both families.

The missing witness

Rajiv Bhujun, a former baggage handler at the hotel who accompanied John McAreavey to his hotel room just before he discovered his wife’s body, is currently working on a cruise ship outside of Mauritius. Police nor defence lawyers have been able to contact or find him.

He was the first person, along with John McAreavey, to reach room 1025 after the killing. He never gave evidence to the trial as police have no clue where he is. It is thought the ship’s last port of call was Dubai.

The acquitted

Sandip Moneea is 42 and a former supervisor at the hotel where Michaela and John were on honeymoon. He has consistently denied any involvement in the crime, telling the court he was on the phone to his sister when Ms McAreavey was killed. At the time of the murder, Moneea was responsible for five room attendants, including the co-accused Avinash Treebhoowoon and key witness Raj Theekoye.

The younger of the two men on trial, Avinash Treebhoowoon is about 30-years-old. He worked under Moneea as a room attendant at the former Legends Hotel. His father testified on his behalf during the trial and said that his son was beaten by police before his ‘confession’. He has since retracted that statement, denying any wrongdoing. His wife Reshma has been a regular at the Port Louis court. During his testimony, Treebhoowoon said that he was told by police that his wife (pictured below) would be deported and made live in Ireland with John McAreavey unless he confessed.

“That man’s wife is dead, he needs a woman to live with,” he claims he was told by a police officer before signing the statement of confession.

Earlier: Michaela murder trial verdict: Two accused found not guilty>

See TheJournal.ie‘s full coverage of the murder trial>

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