Oxford killing fuelled by jealousy

GUILTY: Thuvan Prawesh Sawal.
GUILTY: Thuvan Prawesh Sawal.

It was coldness of it that struck those who watched the evidence unfold in the Oxford murder trial - drinks together at a bar, cricket on television, and then a brutal murder.

The crime was fuelled by anger and jealousy. The victim's affair with a woman was behind it.

The four-week trial has been a gruesome affair, ending in guilty verdicts for the two Sri Lankan men accused of killing their countryman, Sameera Madurangana Manikka Battelage.

GUILTY: Mudiyanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon.
GUILTY: Mudiyanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon.

The jury presumably accepted the Crown's assertion that the pair had a plan and an intention to commit murder, and then tried to hide the evidence at the crime scene by setting it alight with petrol, and burning Battelage's body in the process.

Thuvan Prawesh Sawal, 24, and 35-year-old Mudiyanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon, a jeweller, now face life terms at their sentencing in the High Court at Christchurch on September 6.

A piece of cloth may indicate that burning the body was not the original plan. It was found wrapped around the neck of Battelage, and there did not seem to be any innocent reason for it to be there.

It has led to speculation that it may have been used to try to stem the blood flow from the six neck wounds - including one gaping wound that effectively cut his throat - so that the body could be taken somewhere.

The Waimakariri River was at a convenient point on the men's way back to Christchurch, if they had wished to put the body into the water there.

But they may have found there was just too much blood, which would obviously end up inside the car they were using, and that may have triggered the decision to incinerate the body at the scene.

They left the cloth wrapped around the neck when the living area in the house in Domain Road was torched. The cloth actually preserved the neck and the injuries beneath, which was a gift for the scientists who examined the body.

Detailed evidence about the stabbing and cutting wounds was able to be put to the trial.

While the defence teams presented evidence of the men accusing each other of carrying out the murder and arson alone, the Crown said it was a joint enterprise.

According to its case, Alahakoon had reason to have a grudge against Battelage over the victim's affair with the woman he knew, but it was Sawal who was found to have all the blood over his clothing that would be found torn up and disposed of in wheelie bins at red-zoned properties in River Road, Avonside.

Battelage was evidently expecting trouble when the pair of them arrived unannounced at his house. He made sure that people knew - by phone and text - who he was with "if something goes wrong", he said.

His texts conveyed that rising concern but the defence suggested that may have only been his expectation of a verbal confrontation. The Crown put it differently - that he believed rightly that there would be serious trouble.

The two visitors said they had arrived to watch cricket on television but they found that Mr Battelage's Sky receiver was on the blink. They then made the extraordinary decision to go to the Oxford Workingmen's Club to watch the match.

This was a baffling decision for people who - on the Crown's case - were plotting a murder. It let people see them together and it meant they were photographed by the security cameras. That proved crucial because the Crown was later able to match blood-stained bits of clothing to what the cameras showed one of them was wearing that night.

The answer may be that the secrecy horse had already bolted. Battelage was on a Skype call on his iPhone when the pair arrived at his house. The visitors were shown and introduced to the person at the other end.

They then went to the club, watched the cricket, drank together and then returned to the house in Domain Road.

Battelage may have been on his guard, expecting trouble, and it seems unlikely that he would have gone to sleep on the couch in the hours that followed while the men hung about at his house through a long night. He seems to have been jumped suddenly.

The Crown theory is that Alahakoon held his head while Sawal stepped astride the victim and cut his throat. It called evidence from a blood spatter expert who offered the position astride the body as a possible explanation for the position of the blood spatter.

The murder scene was then splashed about with petrol and set alight. The living area of the house would have gone up with a huge explosion. The fire destroyed much of the evidence at the scene, but enough survived for the Crown to present a lot of detail.

With that, and the details of the "electronic footprint" that we now leave everywhere we go with cellphones and surveillance cameras, the Crown says its case was overwhelming.

On its view, the only option left for the pair was to shift blame by blaming each other. Alahakoon said he was asleep when the throat-cutting took place, and Sawal said he was outside when the attack happened and he rushed inside to stop the fight and got blood all over his clothes in the process.

In the end, the jury decided that they were both involved. The verdicts showed the jury believed they either carried out the murder, helped or encouraged it, or that they had that joint plan - drinks, cricket, and murder. 

The Press