Defendant in killing of two now is own lawyer

Satyavathi Venna was stabbed and granddaughter Saanvi Venna was suffocated in King of Prussia.
Satyavathi Venna was stabbed and granddaughter Saanvi Venna was suffocated in King of Prussia. (Upper Merion Township Police Department)
Posted: May 18, 2014

The judge strongly urged the defendant in a capital murder case not to do it. His lawyers did the same. But in the end, Raghunandan Yandamuri took his own counsel - and became his own counsel.

After a two-hour hearing in Norristown, a Montgomery County Court judge on Friday granted Yandamuri's request to drop his court-appointed lawyer and represent himself at trial this summer.

Yandamuri, a citizen of India in the United States on a work visa, faces murder and other charges in the October 2012 deaths of 10-month-old Saanvi Venna and her grandmother Satyavathi Venna, 61, at the Marquis Apartments in King of Prussia. The infant was suffocated and her grandmother stabbed.

The court had appointed Yandamuri one lawyer for the trial phase and, if he is convicted, a second for the penalty phase. Yandamuri ultimately said he wanted to dismiss his trial attorney, Stephen G. Heckman.

"As we discussed several times over the last few months, I am not satisfied with your representation. . . . I don't believe you will present fair argument & effective cross examination of witness during trial," Yandamuri wrote in April to the lawyers.

After the hearing Friday, Heckman said that Yandamuri was making a mistake and that the trial would be "a circus" if he represented himself.

"He wants certain things included in his case that I'm not seeing . . . and for some reason he believes a different story needs to be told," Heckman said. "So he feels he can only do that by representing himself - which is full of so many pitfalls, I can't even begin to describe what he's facing."

The ruling came after Judge Steven T. O'Neill asked Yandamuri, 28, numerous questions to make sure he understood the consequences of representing himself when the trial begins in early September.

"It is absolutely not a good idea," O'Neill told him.

Prosecutors contend the victims were killed because Yandamuri botched a plan to kidnap the baby and ask for a ransom from her parents to pay gambling debts. Yandamuri was thrown off, authorities say, when the grandmother tried to protect her grandchild. He allegedly killed the grandmother in a struggle and took the baby, whose body was found elsewhere in the apartment complex.

First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele said Friday's ruling wouldn't change prosecutors' plan to seek the death penalty.

Yandamuri, who came to the United States around 2010 as an information technology worker, initially confessed to investigators that he had committed the crimes. He later recanted, saying he had been coerced into making the statement. He now says two strangers who had forced him to take part actually were the killers and kidnappers.

He has written letters to his attorney and the judge, but he sent them to the court clerk, where they become part of the court file. Yandamuri has frequently interrupted his lawyers as they spoke in court, prompting O'Neill at one session to scold him for trying to control proceedings.

Heckman is not out of the picture. O'Neill appointed him to be a standby attorney, which means he could advise the defendant during the trial if Yandamuri asked for advice.


cdavis@phillynews.com

610-313-8109

@carolyntweets

www.inquirer.com/montcomemo

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