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Investigation Under Way In Death Of India Rape Suspect


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. We will never see a verdict against the lead suspect in the notorious gang rape case in India. In the midst of his trial, that suspect has turned up dead in jail. Authorities at the Tihar jail in Delhi, where the defendant was being held, say he was found early this morning hanging in his cell. NPR's Julie McCarthy has been covering this story. She joins us from New Delhi. And, Julie, who was this defendant?

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The defendant, Steve, is Ram Singh. He was between 33 and 34 years old. He was the eldest of the five defendants who were being held in the Tahir jail. A sixth is a juvenile who's detained in a separate facility. Ram Singh was portrayed by investigators, from the beginning, as the mastermind of the assault of this 23 year old girl who subsequently died of her injuries that she suffered in that attack.

He was employed as the driver of the bus that actually ferried school children around by day. And Ram Singh was the first of the six men detained and he was instrumental, police say, in leading them to the five other men. And police say that he had premeditated the attack, that he was the ringleader. The night of the attack he had planned to go on, quote, a "joy ride" where they would pick up a female passenger and assault her.

Friends also described him in the Indian media as someone with a hair trigger temper, but much of what we know about his is what police said about him before the trial, it predates the trial that is currently underway. That trial is closed to the media so we know very little about his demeanor in court.

INSKEEP: And we also don't seem to know very much about how this man died. I understand there are conflicting theories about how he died in jail

MCCARTHY: The authorities are being very cautious. It is an enormous embarrassment for the Delhi authorities and law enforcement, generally. The director general of the jail said an investigation is underway and only after that is concluded can they say with certainty what the cause of death is. Earlier, a spokesman for the jail told me that he had been found hanging from a grille in the ceiling of his cell.

I was told he had used bedding, part of his sleeping mat, to make an improvised rope. Ram Singh was not in solitary confinement. His lawyers say there were other inmates - two or three other inmates - with him. So if it was a suicide they would have slept through it.

INSKEEP: Well, what are his lawyers saying about the possibility that he took his own life?

MCCARTHY: Well, they're in disbelief. V.K. Anand, who represented Ram Singh, said it wasn't plausible to him. He said his client was, quote, "happy with the way the case was going." He gave off no signal that he was suicidal. His demeanor had not changed in recent days. So he was highly skeptical that his client took his own life. When asked whether the jail authorities had been negligent, his response was: Absolutely.

In fact, he said, he suspects foul play but he wouldn't elaborate on what that means or would involve.

INSKEEP: And what are defense lawyers saying about the safety of the other defendants who are still in custody?

MCCARTHY: Well, obviously, that's a big point of concern now. Ram Singh's family, especially, is worried about their other son, Mukesh, who is also a defendant in the trial. Lawyers for these accused, very early on, had complained to the court that their clients were being harassed in jail and that they wanted the authorities to take precautions to ensure that they weren't harmed.

But that apparently has not translated into separate cells. And the events of this morning, sort of, raised many questions, not the least of which is how could this defendant not have been under closer surveillance or more carefully watched? And it certainly seemed to represent a serious lapse of security in one of the most high profile cases India has experienced in years.

INSKEEP: OK. So this trial is going on. It's going on behind closed doors. The lead defendant is dead. Does the trial go forward anyway?

MCCARTHY: The trial does go forward. In fact, there was a hearing again today. The lawyer for Ram Singh said that he will petition the court to actually ask that the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is India's leading investigative domestic arm, come in and investigate and see what happens. The legal experts think that the trial will move ahead, that the case against the remaining men will not necessarily be altered.

Police have said from the start, that they had a hard case against each of them. The father of the young woman who was attacked and died said: We wanted him punished. We punished them punished. And God has punished him. He said he's gone, he's gone.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy is in New Delhi. Julie, thanks as always.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.