Els Clottemans in the Belgian court today, accused of killing fellow skydiver Els Van Doren. Photograph: Michel Krakowski/AFP/Getty Images
It has been called the trial of the year – a murder blamed on a Brussels primary school teacher and amateur skydiver who prosecutors say killed a close friend and fellow parachutist after losing a contest for the affections of their instructor.
Els Clottemans, 26, is charged with murdering Els Van Doren, a 34-year-old married mother who plunged to her death in Flanders almost four years ago after someone sabotaged her parachute, snipping the strings and causing it and the emergency parachute to fail during a threesome sky dive.
A videocamera on Van Doren's gear filmed her desperate struggle as she tried to release her reserve parachute. The video ended as she landed in a suburban garden in eastern Belgium.
"The first question a family normally asks is whether the victim suffered, whether she knew what happened. We don't have to ask, it was filmed. Try to deal with that as a family,"
said Jef Vermassen, a lawyer for Van Doren's family.
Both women, according to police investigators, were having affairs with their Dutch skydiving teacher, Marcel Somers, with all three belonging to the Zwartberg parachute club in eastern Flanders. Jealousy, the prosecution maintains, was the motive for a coldly calculated killing.
When Somers spurned the younger woman for a night with Van Doren, the wife of a Flemish jeweller, Clottemans snipped the parachute strings and Van Doren jumped to her death a few days later, the 68-page chargesheet claims.
Defence lawyers dismissed the evidence as tittle-tattle and hearsay. Several friends from Clottemans's home village travelled several hours to Tongeren, north-west of Brussels, to offer her their support.
The prosecution case rests on establishing the dynamics of a love triangle between the instructor and the two women.
Clottemans was arrested within weeks of the death in November 2006 and questioned after police discovered the two affairs. A court psychiatrist who examined her reinforced the prosecution case by finding her to be psychopathic, narcissistic and manipulative.
Her lawyer, Vic Van Aelst, described this as nonsense today, noting that since being released on bail in 2008, Clottemans had completed teacher training and worked as a primary school teacher in the Brussels district of Anderlecht.
"There is no motive,"
he said. "There is talk of a passionate relationship between Clottemans and Marcel Somers. They are supposed to have been in love. But love was out of the question. There is no evidence at all, not the slightest indication of guilt. I believe Els Clottemans is innocent."
With the court in the Flemish town of Tongeren besieged by Belgian media for a case that has enthralled the country, the prosecution pleaded for quiet.
Vermassen said: "We need to keep calm in our statements during the trial and we ask the press to do the same."
That the women were having an affair with the same man is not contested. However, the intensity of the relationships and the motives for murder are disputed.
Clottemans has told investigators that she suffered from low self-esteem and entered the relationship knowing she was second-best. In a letter published in Belgian papers three years ago, she said: "I always knew I was number two for Marcel."
A few days before the death, the two women were said to have been competing for attention at the instructor's home. Clottemans was rejected, sent to a sleeping bag in the living room where Van Doren had left her parachute, according to the investigation. The straps and strings were cut. Clottemans knew how to do it.
A few days later 12 members of the club flew over Flanders, with the two women supposed to link hands with Somers and another man in a skydiving quartet. Clottemans jumped too late, on her own. Van Doren fell more than 1,000 metres to her death, her last frantic attempts to activate her parachutes filmed by the camera in her helmet.
There is scant forensic evidence to support the case against the school teacher, no DNA or fingerprints from the victim's skydiving kit.
The jury of seven men and five women have four weeks to hear 170 witnesses and make up their minds. guardian.co.uk