A year later, murder case resonates in India

Raghunandan Yandamuri is asking a judge to dismiss his attorneys and to allow him to represent himself.
Raghunandan Yandamuri is asking a judge to dismiss his attorneys and to allow him to represent himself. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 08, 2013

KING OF PRUSSIA In the year since an elderly Indian immigrant and her 10-month-old granddaughter were murdered in their King of Prussia apartment, a story that always was tragic and twisted has become stranger still.

The case has drawn headlines in India, but none as explosive as a report last month.

"Like a wild elephant that tramples everything in its path . . . Raghunandan Yandamuri went on a verbal rampage Sunday, with a blistering attack on his public defender lawyer, the Indian consulate, the Pennsylvania police and his fellow inmates in the county jail."

That is part of a story about a telephone interview that Yandamuri, charged in the October 2012 killings of Saanvi Venna and 61-year-old Satyavathi Venna, gave to an Indian TV show from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. He is jailed there on charges that include first-degree murder and kidnapping.

The online account is written in English though the interview was conducted in Telugu, the language spoken by Yandamuri and the Venna family, who once lived in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Yandamuri, 27, said in the interview that his attorney has been "pessimistic" and instead of pursuing his tips about accomplices has focused on trying to save him from the death penalty that the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office is seeking.

Police also are not exploring that claim, he said, and Indian government officials in the United States are not responding to his requests for help.

The New York office of the Consulate General of India, which covers Pennsylvania, could not be reached for comment.

In 2012, authorities say, Yandamuri plotted to kidnap Saanvi and demand $50,000 in ransom, which he needed to pay gambling debts. He knew the baby's parents and that they had good jobs. They all lived in the Marquis apartment complex on West Dekalb Pike, and all are among the Telugu people of India's Andhra Pradesh state.

When Yandamuri entered the Venna family's apartment Oct. 22, 2012, to snatch the child, authorities say, he was stopped by Satyavathi Venna, who was visiting from India and was babysitting the girl. Police say Yandamuri fatally stabbed the baby's paternal grandmother when she tried to protect the child. He then took the baby, whose body was found four days later.

Soon after his arrest, Yandamuri confessed to the killings, though he called them an accident.

In recent weeks, Yandamuri has sent handwritten letters to his attorney, prosecutors, and the judge in his case, making various points. He filed motions asking to dismiss his attorneys and allow him to represent himself.

No rulings were made in a court hearing last week on those motions, including to be his own attorney.

"For now, we're still his attorneys," said Stephen G. Heckman, his court-appointed attorney for the trial phase. Henry S. Hilles 3d is his attorney if proceedings reach the sentencing phase and he still faces the death penalty.

'The shock'

Yandamuri also asked that his attorney's efforts to remove capital punishment be stopped because he is willing to die.

Telugus in the Philadelphia region are not happy that Yandamuri talked to the Indian media.

"Saanvi's parents [father Venkata Konda Siva Venna and mother Chenchu Latha Punuru], they're in the process of coming out from the shock. Whenever they see news like this, they'll recollect her memories," said Ravi C. Potluri, a King of Prussia software analyst who is president of the Telugu Association of Greater Delaware Valley.

"The community doesn't like the interview," he said. "Everyone believes the confession and police."

The case has struck a nerve in India and the United States, and not just because those involved share a homeland, according to one analyst.

'Our high horse'

Telugus in the United States have been highly successful as engineers and information-technology and science professionals.

Yandamuri's arrest is helping to explode the image that Indians in India and the diaspora have enjoyed as the "model minority" abroad, said Deepak Sarma, a religious-studies professor at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University.

"Now that the population has changed and is larger, there are increased numbers of Indians going to jail in the United States," Sarma said. "It's a peculiar kind of evidence of the assimilation. Now Indians are just like everyone else. . . . We steal. We kill. We cheat on Wall Street. We've been pushed off of our high horse."

The murder of the grandmother also violated the societal respect for elders in India, he said.

"It's a standard trope in the Indian immigrant population that you have a child, and your mother comes to take care of it," Sarma said. "Everyone knows she's come selflessly and left her life in India to take care of the child. People respect and protect that."

Potluri, president of the local Telugu association, said Saanvi's parents were still working but had moved elsewhere in Montgomery County. He won't say where.

Though they still grieve their losses, Venkata Konda Siva Venna and Chenchu Latha Punuru had cause for celebration recently, Potluri said. A few weeks ago, they welcomed a baby boy into the world.


cdavis@phillynews.com

610-313-8109 @carolyntweets

www.inquirer.com/

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