updated 6/16/2008 9:02:50 PM ET 2008-06-17T01:02:50

Theirs was a whirlwind relationship: The 18-year-old running his dad's hotel in Kentucky and the 20-year-old Atlanta native hired as a clerk.

Two months after Ricky Rai started dating Sparkle Reid in October 1998, she was pregnant with their daughter, Analla, and in March 2000 they were wed.

But the relationship ended as abruptly as it began. A few weeks after their marriage, she was found dead in her Union City, Ga. apartment, strangled with a vacuum cord and stabbed more than a dozen times.

The trial began on Monday for the unlikely suspect prosecutors say plotted to have the 22-year-old killed. Ricky's 68-year-old father, Chiman Rai, a native of India and a former math professor at a historically black college, could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors allege racism
The motive: "Because she married his son, because she had a child with his son, and, ladies and gentleman, because she was black," prosecutor Sheila Ross argued to jurors.

Defense attorneys contend the case is not so cut-and-dry. Attorney Don Samuel acknowledged Chiman Rai was "not crazy" about his son's relationship, but said he would never pay someone $10,000 to have her killed.

"It was outrageous," Samuel said of the killing. "But members of the jury, that outrage, that tragedy, will not be mitigated or eliminated by the conviction of an innocent man."

Sparkle Rai was found dead in her apartment in April 2000, her daughter unharmed nearby. But investigators could find little hard evidence pointing to a killer.

The case went unsolved until two witnesses came forward in 2004, a breakthrough the investigators said helped them piece together a trail that eventually led to Chiman Rai.

They charge that Rai teamed up with Willie Fred Evans and Herbert Green to serve as middlemen for the hit squad. The two men passed along $10,000 to brothers Cleveland and Carl Clark, they say; Carl drove the car and Cleveland, a 300-pound ex-con, carried out the killing.

Defense says Rai wasn't behind killings
Samuel said Rai is no murderer or racist, but a hardworking man who brought his family to the U.S. around 1970 and later became a citizen. He taught math at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, later ran a supermarket and then bought a hotel in Louisville, Ky., making his son the hotel's general manager.

Any animosity, Samuel said, was because he didn't know enough about his son's bride and worried he might be taking drugs and stealing money from the hotel.

"Don't get me wrong. There was friction," said Samuel. "But it's nothing different than any parent would do with their children, especially with an 18-year-old."

He suggested Green and Evans may have ordered the hit on their own, perhaps in pursuit of drug money. He also pointed to a series of contradictory statements they made to investigators as evidence they were "two of the most unbelievable witnesses" he's ever heard.

The case could likely hinge on the testimony of the two men, who have both pleaded guilty to lesser charges and are cooperating with prosecutors.

Also expected to take the stand is Ricky Rai, who has since married an Indian woman and settled in Hammond, La. He hasn't seen his daughter since the aftermath of his wife's slaying. Ross said the child is now being cared for by Sparkle Rai's father and stepmother.

"We're going to ask you to end eight long years of waiting for her family," she said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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