New Delhi: On 13 October, a district and sessions judge in Kerala’s Kollam sentenced Sooraj S. Kumar to double life imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh on him for the murder of his wife Uthra on 7 May 2020.
There was no direct evidence in the case, but Kerala Police’s meticulous medical, forensic and scientific evidence on snake bites proved that Sooraj had killed Uthra using a live 1.52-metre-long cobra.
Most of the trial was conducted online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and over 700 questions were posed to the accused, who flatly denied the charges. Eighty-seven police witnesses were examined before the court, apart from a live demonstration to establish that the snake bite was homicidal and not natural.
A water-tight case was built on evidence provided by surgeons who conducted the necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy) of the dead snake, which was exhumed during investigation, apart from veterinary doctors, wildlife officials, zoologists, herpetologists (experts on reptiles and amphibians), snake handlers, and medical specialists. They established the 29 circumstances the police relied upon to prove the murder.
The court dismissed Sooraj’s attempt to discredit the veracity of expert witnesses, saying they had given valid and cogent reasons to support their opinions. “There is no iota of suspicion to doubt” them, it said.
The court further noted that Uthra sustained the cobra bite while she was convalescing after sustaining a viper bite, and had no other fatal disease at the time of her death.
It was also ruled by the bench that the viper bite, too, was induced and part of a conspiracy hatched by Sooraj to get rid of Uthra.
As for the motive, the court said Sooraj had “ill-will towards Uthra on account of her mental condition”. However, he wanted to retain the assets received from her family at their marriage, so he hatched the conspiracy to “project the murder as natural and serpentine curse”.
Sooraj was charged with murder, attempt to murder and destruction of evidence following a complaint lodged by Uthra’s family.
Uthra was living in her parents’ house, recuperating from an earlier viper bite when she was found motionless by her mother on the morning of 7 May 2020. She was declared dead when the family took her to hospital. It was there the doctors said she died due to another snake bite.
The family suspected foul play and sought a probe into the death. They alleged that Sooraj was with Uthra the night before she was found dead, and claimed he had been harassing her for money, and after her death, had offered to keep their child with him on the condition that her parents support him financially.
According to the police, before Sooraj induced a cobra bite on Uthra, he gave her sedative tablets mixed in juice. It was only after he was convinced she was unconscious that he caused the snake bite on her left arm, twice, to ensure she died by envenomation.
Sooraj refuted the charges levelled against him. He claimed that in February 2020, three months before his wife’s death, there were several instances when snakes were seen on the premises of his house, and that he had even sought help of a snake handler to catch them.
According to the police, he had bought both the viper and the cobra from the same snake handler.
He denied that his wife had a mental condition, as “she a rode scooter and communicated through WhatsApp in English as well as Malayalam”.
Sooraj claimed on the night before Uthra was bitten by the snake, the windows of the room where she was sleeping were kept open, since she was uncomfortable with air-conditioning.
His in-laws, he claimed, had instituted a false case against him due to enmity regarding a property dispute and custody of his child.
‘Cobra cannot raise more than 1/3rd of its length’
In its 478-page judgment, the court discussed at length the forensic and medical literature revolving around snake bites, and the opinions of the police’s team of experts. It came to the conclusion that natural entry of a 152-cm-long cobra through any window was not possible.
According to the investigation, Uthra’s room was on the ground floor, but its window was 62 cm from the ground, and the court agreed with the experts’ opinion that a cobra can only raise itself vertically to one-third of its length. This meant the cobra that bit Uthra could have raised itself to only around 50 cm from the ground.
As for the gap beneath the door, the judge said it was too small for a snake to pass through.
“Due to the minimal gap between the door and floor of Uthra’s room and the nature of ventilator and bedroom drains (in the bathroom attached to the room) fixed with a cover, and the fact that the window of the dressing room was at a height of more than 2 metres, the possibility of the snake coming naturally into the room of Uthra was ruled out,” the judgment read.
Cobras cannot climb the pipe fixed to the wall of the house, experts told the court.
Moreover, the smell of kerosene and phenol, both snake repellants, had been noticed in Uthra’s room, which was cited as another reason why it could not have come in on its own.
The experts further said the bite was not natural because cobras are not usually active at the time when Uthra was purportedly bitten by the snake. In their opinion, which the court accepted, cobras would’ve been active between 5 pm and 8 pm.
In his statement to the police, Sooraj had claimed Uthra was probably bitten in the night, while she was sleeping. The experts said that isn’t when cobras come out of their hiding place and bite, unless there is grave provocation or inducement.
Snake bites wider than usual
The court highlighted four circumstances to refute Sooraj’s theory that the snake bite was natural — that there were two successive bites; that the two bites were in proximity; that they were wider than usual bites; and that there was a significant difference between the fang width of both bite marks.
The normal length of the fangs of a fully grown cobra is 6 to 7 millimetres, and the natural distance between the two fangs of a cobra — known as fang width — ranges between 1 cm and 1.6 cm.
In Uthra’s case, forensic evidence showed the fang width of both the bites on Uthra’s body were more than 2 cm — there were two successive bites 2 mm apart from each other, and the distance between the two fangs was 2.3 cm and 2.8 cm, respectively.
Asked by the court how the fang width could be this much, experts said it was not possible to induce a cobra to bite a person without applying pressure on its head, and “when pressure is put on the maxilla (upper jaw), the inter cartilage space increases, as does the width of the fangs. When a cobra is milked of its venom, for example, the fang width increases.
On the basis of this evidence, the court “found that the prosecution has proved conclusively that Uthra had sustained induced cobra bites which resulted in fatal envenomation and caused her death”.
“Basically, cobras are very frugal in spending their venom. Naturally, after one bite, they tend to evade the person. If the bites are from the same cobra, there would not be much variation of the inter-fang distance. If there are multiple bites, the bites would be at different places,” the court further said, based on the experts’ view.
The court also found it “strange” that despite being bitten twice, Uthra did not feel the pain and wake up from her slumber. This, it said, conclusively proved that she was sedated at the time she sustained the bites.
To counter Sooraj’s version, the Kerala Police recreated the crime scene and video-recorded it to give a demonstration to the court.
The crime scene was filmed after 8.30 pm, and an Uthra-sized dummy was placed on the cot, with a fresh broiler chicken piece tied to its hand. Then, a cobra was released from a container on top of the dummy.
The video showed the cobra did not make any attempt to bite the dummy, and crawled to the ground. The snake was then provoked several times, to which it displayed defensive mechanisms, but finally, it bit on the chicken piece. After it bit a second time, the fang width of both bites was measured, and found to be a uniform 1.7 cm.
Then, the cobra’s head was held and made to induce two bites on the chicken piece. The fang width was found to be larger and varying, at 2 and 2.4 cm.
With this demonstration, the police were able to establish that a cobra bites only moving objects, after displaying defensive mechanisms like hooding and hissing, or when it is forced to by inflicting pain.
Viper bite was forced too
The police also presented expert evidence to demonstrate that Sooraj had inflicted the viper bite on Uthra 50 days before the cobra bite. This incident took place in March 2020 when Uthra was residing at their marital home.
The police once again recreated the scene, this time using a dead rat tied to the leg of the dummy and a live Russell’s viper.
Since there was no thermal radiation, the viper did not bite the dead rat. Thereafter, a live rat was tied to the leg of the dummy, and the snake was released on top of it. When the rat moved, the viper bit it.
However, the bite marks on Uthra’s leg were vertical, which were inconsistent with the natural horizontal bite mark of a Russell’s viper on the lower portion of the leg, the court said. Thus the court concluded that even the viper bite was induced to harm Uthra while she was sleeping; she was not bitten while standing, as Sooraj had claimed.
There was also the question of the viper’s habitat. “Usually, the habitat of the Russell’s viper is a dry area, and they dislike wet areas. The locality of the residence of the accused was not suitable for Russell’s viper habitat. A Russell’s viper would not easily move through the wall and smooth surface of the tile to the staircase landing, wherein it is found the residence of Uthra. Moreover, Russell’s viper is non-arboreal (doesn’t reside on trees),” the judgment read.
Phone search history
Another piece of evidence that proved the charges against Sooraj beyond reasonable doubt was the surfing history recovered from his phone.
The digital footprints revealed Sooraj had made online searches for different species of snakes, including viper, cobra and ‘Kuzhimandali’. He regularly tracked videos uploaded by snake handlers, one of whom he had connected with and bought the two snakes.
“If a person searches for a new model of a car on the internet, it reveals his interest, or his preparation to purchase the said car. Likewise, if a person searches the internet and YouTube for venomous snakes, it would tend to disclose his nefarious design in some particular instances,” the court noted.
“When a person searches the internet for a venomous snake like a viper in the late hours of the night, and, within a short duration, his wife sustains envenomation similar to that could be injected through the fangs of a viper, and that person offers false explanation multiple times to multiple people, it points to a guilty mind and an adverse incriminating circumstance which is not a mere coincidence,” it added.
Sooraj’s WhatsApp Chat history confirmed his constant interaction with the snake handler, who was initially arrested as an accused, but later pardoned and turned into an approver.
Sooraj’s demeanour after the incident also lent credence to the police version regarding his involvement in the case. Apart from this, a detailed statement made by the snake handler proved to be the clinching evidence against him.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)