ATLANTA – A Mississippi businessman born in India was convicted Thursday of plotting to have his black daughter-in-law killed weeks after she wed his son because, prosecutors said, he believed she would bring down the family stock.
Prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Chiman Rai, 68, on charges that he masterminded the murder of Sparkle Michelle Rai. The 22-year-old was found strangled with a vacuum cord and stabbed more than a dozen times weeks after her March 2000 wedding to Rai's son, Ricky Rai.
Jurors, who reached the verdict on the second day of deliberations, found Chiman Rai guilty on seven charges, including felony murder and burglary.
"I'm feeling very much relieved," said Bennet Reid, Sparkle's father, as he blinked through tears. "I feel justice has been served for my granddaughter and for my family. My daughter's not going to come back, but she's smiling now."
Next is the sentencing phase, when the same jury will decide whether Rai should die for his crimes.
Attorneys presented starkly contrasting images of Rai during the eight-day trial.
Prosecutors sought to portray him as a racist who was so upset that Ricky married and fathered a child with Sparkle that he shelled out $10,000 to have her killed. They called Rai's ex-cellmate in the Fulton County Jail to testify that Rai called black people "scum." They also pointed to statements from Ricky Rai, who told investigators after the killing that his father was "a little racist."
Defense attorneys depicted Rai as a hardworking businessman who wanted his son to marry an Indian woman, but was far from a racist. They paraded a steady stream of Rai's black customers and fellow inmates before the jury, and each described Rai as tolerant and compassionate.
Rai's attorneys also reminded the jury that their client taught math at Alcorn State University, a historically black college in Mississippi, and later ran a supermarket in a predominantly black area in Jackson. He also helped buy a hotel in Louisville, Ky., where he made Ricky the general manager in 1998.
Ricky hired Sparkle Reid, an Atlanta native, as a clerk. They started dating in October 1998 and two months later she was pregnant with their daughter Analla. The relationship ended when Sparkle was found dead in her apartment on April 26, 2000. Her 7-month-old daughter was nearby, unharmed.
Investigators found little evidence and the case remained unsolved until two witnesses came forward in 2004, a breakthrough investigators said helped them connect the killing to Chiman Rai.
Prosecutors said Rai teamed up with Willie Fred Evans and Herbert Green to serve as middlemen for the hit squad, and both testified in court they arranged the killing. Both have pleaded guilty to lesser charges and cooperated with prosecutors. They are expected to receive probation.
Prosecutors say the money was passed to brothers Cleveland and Carl Clark and that Cleveland, who also faces the death penalty, carried out the killing.
Defense attorneys contend Evans and Green lied to cover up their role in the killing, which they say had the look of a robbery gone bad. They suggest that Evans and Green plotted the killing, perhaps in pursuit of drug money, and they pounded prosecutors for giving the two a "sweetheart deal" in exchange for their cooperation.
"You could have 100 liars testify to something," said Jack Martin, Rai's attorney. "And it's not worth anything."
After the verdict was read, Rai buried his head in his hands, inches away from a small statue he's had as a good luck charm through most of the trial.