India rape spurs calls for changes to system

Teen suspect's alleged role puts focus on juvenile justice

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NEW DELHI — A hearing today will attempt to determine whether a sixth suspect in the brutal rape and killing of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi last month is a minor or should be tried as an adult. His case has sparked anger, outrage and calls for fundamental changes to India's juvenile justice system to assure that he doesn't avoid severe punishment.

There's a lot at stake for the still-unidentified suspect. As a minor, he would face a maximum three years in juvenile detention. As an adult over 18, he would join the other five defendants who could face life imprisonment, even execution. Two of the five, gym instructor Vinay Sharma and driver Mukesh Singh, also contend that they're minors, with the court yet to rule on their cases.

The case highlights the burdens facing the justice system as it struggles to deal with a growing caseload of juvenile offenders.

Determining someone's age would seem to be fairly straightforward. In populous India, however, records are often inexact, illiteracy widespread and official information often kept in dusty ledgers rather than computers. Many people, particularly in rural areas, don't have birth certificates nor are even sure of their age.

Today's closed-door hearing will reportedly consider evidence from the purported juvenile's former high school principal indicating he was 17 at the time of the crime, although the school never saw his birth records. The judge also may call for bone density tests, although experts say this can produce inconclusive results, particularly involving someone close to 18.

The five other suspects have been charged with murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, destruction of evidence and criminal conspiracy. Authorities say they picked up the woman -- still officially unnamed under Indian law -- and her 28-year old male friend Dec. 16 in what appeared to be a normal commuter bus, beat them, raped her and dumped the pair, naked and nearly unconscious, along a road in a posh part of the capital. The woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.

The sixth suspect, reportedly 17 years and six months old at the time, was allegedly the most brutal. According to a confidential charging sheet cited by Indian media, police say that he lured the pair onto the bus with sweet talk, then inflicted severe internal injuries on the rape victim with an iron bar that ultimately led to her death.