by SEAN KIMMONS
An influential Hindu guru was found guilty Friday evening by a Hays County jury on 20 counts of indecency with a child by sexual contact.
Prakashanand Saraswati, 82, was convicted of all charges by the jury of eight men and four women after only two hours of deliberation. A punishment hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday.
Each indecency count, a second-degree felony, carries a punishment between two and 20 years in prison. The trial, presided over by 22nd District Judge Charles Ramsay, began last week.
Known as Shree Swamiji by his devotees, Prakashanand was arrested in April 2008 and charged with touching the breasts of two then-minor girls between 1993 and 1996 while they lived at a Driftwood area ashram. Prakashanand runs the ashram and is the spiritual head of the JKP-Barsana Dham temple on site.
In closing arguments, Assistant Criminal District Attorney Amy Lockhart told the jury that Swamiji had used his power as a religious leader to grope the girls for his own gratification.
“We want to show you that he had the power, love and trust and he abused it,” she said.
Lockhart explained that the girls saw Swamiji as a god and could not question his acts.
The first accuser, now 30, said that the alleged abuse began when she was 12 years old.
“She thought it was impossible to outcry against a god,” Lockhart said. “She was told that it was a test and if she failed she would go to hell.”
Similar abuse initially occurred to the second accuser, aged 27, when she was also 12 years old, said Lockhart, who claimed that Swamiji exploited the girl’s trust by kissing her with his tongue and fondling her breasts numerous times.
“She believed that he must have had a divine reason for this,” she told the jury.
As an attempt to debunk the defense’s witnesses who testified that the girls were habitual liars and Swamiji was never alone with them, Lockhart hinted that the witnesses were also being used by a so-called saint.
“These people are still devoted to him,” she said. “Barsana Dham is the perfect breeding ground to exploit love and trust.”
Defense attorney Jeff Kearney the charges against his client couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I really don’t think you can do that in this case,” Kearney of Fort Worth, told the jury.
He argued that the prosecution wanted the jury to convict his client on the stories of three untruthful women, with no other evidence to support their claims. The third woman, aged 31, testified that the guru also groped her; however, she is not one of the named accusers since the statute of limitations ended before she could press charges.
“That decision has to be on law and evidence, not a gut feeling,” he said of the jury’s verdict.
Kearney then said that the accusers’ stories were too consistent and fabricated. When the defense tried to question the accusers, he said, they would become uncooperative and get “instant amnesia.” He recounted the first accuser skirting past defense questions more than 110 times, while the second accuser did it more than 50 times.
“Are they trying to sell you something?” he told the jury of the prosecution’s case.
He also deflated the testimony by the accusers that said Swamiji had molested them hundreds of times. Two of the accusers were sisters and all three were best friends who lived together in a small community, he said.
“There are unanswered questions,” he said of the case. “It’s a made-up story.”
Defense attorney Angelyn Gates, another lawyer on the guru’s far-flung defense team — Prakashanand had at least a dozen lawyers working on his behalf — then argued that the accusers had a motive for coming forward, and it wasn’t to save children from abuse.
“They did not come forward to save the children, but came forward when there weren’t any children left [at Barsana Dham],”she said.
Gates painted a picture of a family feud among the two accusing sisters and their family, which still lives on the ashram. In addition, all three accusers were already ashram outcasts when they decided to file police reports in 2007 while they were all living in Seattle, Wash.
She added that Swamiji had taken a vow of celibacy and has devoted his entire life on how to be spiritual.
“All you have is three girls who were shunned away,” she told the jury.
‘Use your gut’
Assistant Criminal District Attorney Cathy Compton concluded the closing arguments by telling the jury to ignore what she called the defense’s misdirection tactics.
Compton claimed that Swamiji does not live a simple life at the ashram, as defense witnesses had testified earlier.
“He sits on a throne. He has a servant,” she said. “He’s hanging out with millionaires and going to Las Vegas.”
Infomercial magnate Peter Spiegel, a wealthy Saraswati adherent, put up a $10 million bond in security following Swamiji’s arrest, which allowed him to visit India for religious duties before the trial convened.
Compton also added that most sexual abuse cases only have one victim – this case has three.
“Use your gut,” she told the jury. “You know the truth.”Email | Print