Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Friday, 19 March 2010

Can the Goa trial untangle the Scarlett Keeling case?

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Goa

Scarlett Keeling
Scarlett Keeling was killed on a Goa beach more than two years ago

The trial of two men charged with killing 15-year-old British girl Scarlett Keeling has got under way in Goa. But what are the chances of getting to the bottom of the case?

Away from Goa's famous beaches, the trial in the Scarlett Keeling case is taking place in an unprepossessing building in the state capital Panaji. It has been a long time in coming.

The two accused are both out on bail, and they arrived in court without fanfare.

Placido Carvalho, a local businessman, was accompanied by members of his family.

Samson D'Souza, a bartender, tried to hide his face with a black crash helmet as he walked into the room.

The Goa children's court has pink wall panels and pink tiles on the floor. Eight ceiling fans whirr continuously making the proceedings difficult to follow.

Fiona MacKeown: "I want to know the truth"

Trials in India often drag on for years with hearings only taking place every few months.

But the initial signs are that the judge in this case - B.P. Deshpande - is determined to move things along much more quickly, now that the prosecution is finally ready.

Cocktail of drugs

Scarlett Keeling was just 15 years old when she was killed more than two years ago, in the early hours of 18 February 2008 on Anjuna beach in Goa.

At first the local police said it was an accident. They urged Scarlett's mother Fiona MacKeown to return quickly to the UK with her daughter's body.

But Ms MacKeown insisted on a second post-mortem examination which revealed nearly 50 bruises, and concluded that this was a case of homicide.

The post-mortem also revealed that Scarlett had been raped, and that she had taken a cocktail of drugs including ecstasy, LSD and cocaine.

The charge sheet in this case alleges that Samson D'Souza and Placido Carvalho had a hand in forcing Scarlett to take drugs - although witnesses suggest she was already heavily intoxicated when she arrived at the beach shack at about 3am.

The charge sheet also alleges that Samson D'Souza sexually assaulted Scarlett on the beach and left her near the water line.

The actual cause of death, it says, was asphyxia and drowning in sand and shallow water.

Evidence charge

A local lawyer, Vikram Verma, who is representing Fiona MacKeown, believes that the amount of wet sand found inside Scarlett's body and a huge bruise on her back suggest that the accused knelt on top of her and forced her face into the wet sand, choking her to death.

Both Mr D'Souza and Mr Carvalho have been accused among other things of culpable homicide, which is a lesser charge than murder, of grievous sexual assault, which is a lesser charge than rape, and, crucially, of destroying evidence.

Vikram Verma believes the evidence which was allegedly destroyed could have enabled more serious charges to be levelled against both men.

Mr Verma also points out that this will be something of a test case because the conviction rate in serious crimes against foreigners in Goa is zero.

He - like many others - suspects collusion between drugs gangs, and elements in politics and the police.

Just this week several police officers from the state's anti-narcotics unit have been formally arrested on charges of corruption.

Dark side

So what chance is there that justice really will be done in the Scarlett Keeling case? The prosecution says it is confident that it has a strong case.

But there have been many suggestions that another unnamed man, who may have been involved in Scarlett's death, is being protected in some way because of the influence he wields in Goa.

Fiona MacKeown has certainly always said she suspects that there was a broader conspiracy and attempts to cover up the crime. She is expected to give evidence here within the next few weeks.

She has also been heavily criticised, particularly in some sections of the British media, for her alternative lifestyle and for leaving Scarlett in Anjuna while she travelled down the coast for several weeks with six of her other children.

But a police investigation here in Goa has cleared Ms MacKeown of any charges of negligence.

On the beach where Scarlett died, the shack where she was last seen alive has been torn down. Not a trace of it remains.



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