Published: Saturday, December 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.

Citing lack of evidence, judge dismisses murder charge

Prosecutors must decide their next step in the case of the stabbing death of a University of Florida graduate assistant after a judge dismissed a murder charge Friday against the man's friend and former roommate.

Circuit Judge Robert Cates cited insufficient evidence in his decision to drop a first-degree murder charge against Praveen Vedam, 26, in the death of Sudheer Reddy Satti, 24.

Vedam also has been accused of theft in connection with Satti's missing laptop computer, one of several items that apparently disappeared from his apartment. The judge dropped that charge earlier this week.

But the judge's decision likely won't mean the case against Vedam is over.

State Attorney Bill Cervone said Friday he is not, at this point, abandoning the case. Instead, his office is considering either an appeal or an attempt to refile charges against Vedam within the next few weeks after consulting with the Attorney General's Office.

Meanwhile, Vedam's defense attorney, Robert Rush, said his client, who has always maintained his innocence, was "very, very relieved and very thankful."

"He was crying, he was just so happy," Rush said.

Reached by phone after the judge's decision was announced, Satti's father, Nagi Reddy Satti of Hyderabad, India, said, "We cannot do anything but pray to God."

Nagi Satti said that no matter what happens next, he wants to know who killed his son and why. He believes, he said, that Vedam "knows something" about his son's death.

Concerned friends who hadn't heard from Sudheer Satti initiated an investigation that led to his body's discovery in his on-campus apartment at Maguire Village on Jan. 4. He had been stabbed more than 30 times in the first homicide on UF property in at least 25 years.

Attention focused on Vedam as a suspect based on questions about his whereabouts, statements he made that officers described as conflicting and indications of an argument between the two men in the last days before Sudheer Satti's death. Then the missing computer case with Sudheer Satti's blood on it was found in an air duct where Vedam worked. Pieces of the computer also were located at a warehouse near his workplace.

Prosecutors called the evidence circumstantial but said it still pointed to Vedam.

'A pretty rare event'

However, the judge's order was met with little surprise by attorneys and others who have followed the case. Cates had indicated at a hearing last week he likely would drop charges unless prosecutors produced additional evidence.

The state was not able to offer that evidence, although Cervone said additional tests for blood evidence still are pending.

Prosecutors could seek to refile charges or go forward with an appeal based on new evidence. They also could argue on appeal that the judge erred in his decision, either by misinterpreting the law or misconstruing the case's facts.

UF law professor Chris Slobogin called the judge's ruling to dismiss the case "a pretty rare event" and said it's unclear what would happen if an appellate court is asked to review the matter.

Arrested in January, Vedam was released from jail on a reduced bond in July. Under conditions set by the court, he has since remained in Alachua County where he had been working as a software programmer prior to Satti's death.

Rush said Vedam would like to go to India and visit his family but doesn't have the money. For now, he said, "He's not going anywhere."

As for the state's decision to pursue the case, Rush said, "We don't have any control over what the state does. All we can do is respond to it."

The defense attorney has repeatedly argued that evidence in the case, including the items missing from Satti's home, indicates this was a robbery-murder and that unknown hair and blood evidence found at the scene will lead to the real killer.

The University Police Department was "extremely disappointed" with Cates' decision, according to a statement from the agency.

"But we stand by the ongoing investigation and its findings. The investigation into this heinous crime will continue with the objective of obtaining the evidence to arrest and convict the murderer of Sudheer Reddy Satti. At this time there is no evidence to indicate anyone other than Praveen Vedam is responsible for the murder," the department's statement said.

Community reaction

Arun Someshwar, secretary of the India Cultural and Education Center, said he wants to know what officers are going to do now to catch Sudheer Satti's killer.

"Now that you've lost so much time, what are you planning to do? His family is back to square one," Someshwar said. He also said, since there is no closure as to who or why Sudheer Satti died, the area's Indian community wants answers as to whether the man's death could have been racially motivated.

Vasudha Narayanan, a UF professor of religion and faculty adviser for the Indian Student Association, said she felt "cautious optimism" for Vedam but also concern for Sudheer Satti's family.

She questioned what happened to the graduate assistant and wondered if information Rush cited about unknown hair and blood samples or Sudheer Satti's missing possessions would be pursued by investigators.