San Marcos Mercury - Texas December 16, 2010
Judge won’t suppress testimony in Hindu guru’s sex crime trial
by Brad Rollins
Testimony of a woman who was allegedly molested as a teen by an internationally known Hays County Hindu leader will be admissible in court despite a missing video recording of an investigator’s interview with the accuser, 22nd District Judge Charles Ramsay ruled on Wednesday.
Prakashanand Saraswati, who presides over a Driftwood area ashram as the spiritual head of the JKP-Barsana Dham sect temple, is accused of touching the breasts of two teenagers during a three-year period starting in 1993. Hays County Sheriff’s Office Det. Jeri Skrocki interviewed the woman in November 2007, but a tape of the exchange has since been lost.
Lawyers for Prakashanand asked Ramsay to suppress the woman’s testimony, a rare move that could have bedeviled attempts to prosecute any of the 20 counts of indecency with a child that stem from her allegations. A jury trial on the charges is scheduled to start in February..
In a filing, attorneys wrote, “The degree of negligence is relatively high, as an essential item of evidence has been lost, and the State has not given an adequate reason to explain the circumstances that led to this loss of evidence. … This evidence was highly significant, as it represents the primary method by which Defendant’s counsel can impeach [the complainant's] testimony at trial. Finally, there is no other evidence supporting this charge other than [the accuser's] own statements and her potential testimony.”
In arguments Ramsay apparently accepted, prosecutors argued that Skrocki’s detailed synopsis of the interview — which District Attorney Sherri Tibbe calls “almost a transcript” — is sufficient to substitute for the tape. In addition, the witness will testify and be subject to cross-examination by Prakashanand’s defense attorneys.
Loss of evidence “doesn’t happen very often but it does happen and it happens in every jurisdiction. The defense has known for over a year that there were issues with this tape [and] it’s an issue that is certainly there but it doesn’t affect our ability to move forward with the case,” Tibbe said in an interview on Thursday. She said jurors would likely be told by the defense that an interview tape is missing.
After the court ruled in September 2009 that the state must turn over the tape, Skrocki gave what she thought was a copy to defense attorneys, who said they were unable to open or view the testimony. In a hearing on Wednesday, Skroki testified that when she sought the original copy from the sheriff’s office evidence room, she was told it couldn’t be found.
Electronic equipment used for duplicating DVDs at the sherrif’s office has since been replaced and is not available for examination, testimony showed.
“Bottom line, whether the DVD was intentionally destroyed or simply lost, it is gone — that creates a real problem for the prosecution in this case. And not only is that evidence not available, today we learned that they have either lost or destroyed the computer itself,” said Austin attorney Joe Turner, one of a half-dozen lawyers on Prakashanand muscular defense team.
Ramsay also rejected the defense’s motion to conduct a sworn deposition of the accuser prior to trial. The Hays Free Press is withholding the accuser’s name because the newspaper has a policy of not identifying alleged victims of sexual crimes.
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