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State to call 74 witnesses
Almost eight years after Xtra Foods chief executive Vindra Naipaul-Coolman was abducted from her Chaguanas home and subsequently killed, the trial of a dozen men accused of her murder began in the Port-of-Spain High Court yesterday. The trial started with the State’s opening address to the jury, which included the harrowing tale of Naipaul-Coolman’s last days, narrated by special state prosecutor Israel Khan, SC. The jury, the dozen accused men and their two dozen attorneys all listened attentively to the narrative, despite the grisly descriptions, complex storyline and several religious and cultural references which Khan wove together in his four-hour presentation.
Khan encouraged jurors to be objective and dispassionate when listening to the evidence and told them to divorce their personal opinions from their deliberations. “Give these men a fair trial but don’t have any sympathy for them or the victim,” Khan said. He explained to jurors that during the trial, the State, in its bid to prove the guilt of the 12 men, would lead a mixture of scientific and circumstantial evidence, coupled with testimony from one of the accused men’s neighbours, who was allegedly present when Naipaul-Coolman was killed and her body disposed of.
“When you put together everything like a jigsaw puzzle you would get a clear picture of the story of this woman’s death,” Khan said. However, he was careful to note that the State did not have the evidence to link the men to Naipaul-Coolman’s kidnapping on December 19, 2006 but instead could only prove that they were aware of it and participated in her murder and the disposal of her body. “If, after hearing the evidence, you have a reasonable doubt, set them free. If in your heart and conscience you know they are guilty, find them guilty,” he said.
Khan revealed that of the 74 state witnesses expected to testify in the trial, 65 were police officers and the rest members of Naipaul-Coolman’s family, including her husband, Rennie Coolman, and her daughter from a previous marriage, Risha Ali. The trial is expected to last well over a year, as defence attorneys representing each man are expected to cross-examine several important witnesses individually.
Security measures at the Hall of Justice, Port-of-Spain, were increased yesterday as the murder trial started. Security officers set up a secondary checkpoint outside the entrance to the Second and Third Assizes hours before the matter started. Visitors were told to leave their cellphones with security personnel before they were allowed into the two courtrooms. The two rooms, outfitted with video conferencing equipment, are being used for the trial to accommodate the large number of attorneys who are defending the 12 accused. The trial has been blighted with delays in the past as many of the accused had difficulties in securing legal representation before the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority intervened in 2012 to implement a special Cabinet-approved payment plan to convince defence attorneys to represent the accused in the trial.
Jury selection began in May last year when more than 600 people were summoned as potential jurors. The trial could not begin immediately after the month-long jury selection process, however, as defence attorneys were engaged in pre-trial legal arguments. Before adjourning the case, Justice Malcolm Holdip warned jurors not to discuss the trial with their friends, family and members of the public. State prosecutors will begin presenting evidence in the case tomorrow.