Uthra Verdict: How a Snakebite Case Led to a Murder Conviction in Kerala
In a rare case, reportedly the first in Kerala, Sooraj S Kumar, was convicted of murdering his wife using a cobra.
"I have nothing to say," said Sooraj S Kumar, minutes before he was pronounced guilty of murdering his wife. An Additional Sessions Court in Kollam district of Kerala, on Monday, 11 October held that Kumar had used a cobra to induce its bite on his 25-year-old wife, Uthra, with an intension to kill her.
The incident, which was first considered a natural snakebite, had happened on 7 May 2020. Shortly after, Uthra's family accused Kumar of killing his wife for dowry.
Kumar from Kerala's Kollam had allegedly first hired a viper and then a cobra for murder.
He was found guilty under sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 328 (causing injury by a poisonous substance), and 201 (destruction of evidence) of the Indian Penal Code.
It is a rare case and believed to be the first in Kerala, where an accused used a snake to kill a person.
On Monday morning, even as the corridors of the court were packed with onlookers who were there to know the verdict, a police battalion brought in Kumar.
When the judge questioned the accused on the quantum of sentence, all that Kumar said was, "I have a sister and parents who are very old".
It is important to note that a few weeks after Kumar's arrest in 2020, the crime branch also arrested his father, mother and sister. They were charged with conspiracy, domestic violence and destruction of evidence.
How did the police prove that Kumar had attempted to kill his wife with a snake, twice?
At First, No Suspicion Only Superstition
Uthra, was found dead at her house in Kollam's Anchal. According to the police, as per Uthra's mother Manimegalai's statement, Uthra and Kumar had gone to bed after dinner. The next morning, 7 May 2020, Kumar, usually a late riser, woke up unusually early and went out. However, Uthra didn’t wake up at her usual time.
When Manimegalai asked Kumar about her daughter, he casually told her that Uthra was sleeping. When the mother went to her daughter's room, she found Uthra unconscious with her mouth wide open, said the police. She was rushed to the hospital where she was declared dead.
The prosecution's lawyer Mohan Raj told The Quint that after learning that she had died of a snake bite, Kumar and his friend returned to the house to find the snake under the cupboard; they then killed the snake.
It is interesting to note that just two months ago, in March 2020, Uthra had been bitten by a viper. Then, she was bed-ridden for 52 days and had to undergo a plastic surgery.
The neighbours and family members initially didn't suspect Kumar and instead assumed it was a 'sarppa kopam' (wrath of the snake) that was haunting the family. Later, Uthra's parents suspected foul play in their daughter's death and filed a complaint with the police.
This led to the unravelling of an unconventionally macabre murder, that took extensive, intelligent planning.
The Big Plan
The investigation into the case was led by Crime Branch Deputy Superintendent of Police, A Ashokan.
"This is the first case in Kerala where a man has used a live animal to kill someone. We were truly baffled but I am glad our men cracked this."A Ashokan, Crime branch Deputy Superintendent of Police
On 12 July, Sooraj Kumar, while speaking to reporters broke down and publicly confessed to the murder. He allegedly said that he had bought two snakes for Rs 10,000 on two occasions from Chavarukavu Suresh of Kalluvathukkal in Kollam.
Suresh turned approver in the trial which started on 1 December that helped the police build the case.
Kumar had reportedly bought the snakes by telling Suresh that he wanted to take care of a rodent problem in his area, said the police. During the hearing, Suresh informed the court that he had handed over the snakes to Kumar without knowing the true purpose.
"The autopsy report confirmed that Uthra's blood samples had traces of the snake venom, specifically cobra's venom. The report also proved that Kumar had given his wife sleeping pills before the snake attack," Ashokan told The Quint.
How Police Recreated the Murder Scene with a Cobra
The police conducted a ‘dummy’ test in September 2021 to recreate the scene of the crime and see how the cobra would have bitten.
The first snake-bite incident took place in Kumar's house and the second at Uthra's. Explaining the first incident, the police said that Russell's viper, a species of venomous snake, rarely climbs trees and is not found in residential areas. Also, in their investigation it was revealed that while Kumar's mother said the snake must have entered the room through a tree branch leaning inside, neighbours said that the branch was not jutting out that way until that day.
Ashokan explained that, in the second incident, the argument that a cobra climbed into Uthra's house through the bedroom window too didn't seem plausible. The room had two windows and three ventilators at a height of 150 centimetres and as per veterinarians, the snake couldn't have reached that height, he said.
"Sooraj had alleged that the snake entered through the window. But the family members told us that the windows are always shut because it is an air-conditioned room. And even if that allegation were right, it was Sooraj who was sleeping close to the window. So shouldn’t the snake have attacked him first? How will a snake cross over him, come to the other side and leap over her hand and bite her?," Ashokan told The Quint.
A key observation made was that the bite of such a snake would cause a puncture that is only 1.7 to 1.8 cm-deep. Investigators established that Sooraj Kumar had held the snake's hood against Uthra's body, causing the puncture to go as deep as 2.3 and 2.8 cm.
The police had also found that just a few days before the alleged murder, Kumar had searched extensively about snake bites and how to agitate a snake on YouTube.
The police have submitted a charge sheet that runs over 1,000 pages.
'Evidence Circumstantial': Sooraj Kumar’s Counsel
Kumar’s counsel argued that all evidence presented was "only circumstantial".
Advocate Ajith Prabhav argued that the snake experts who were cited in the chargesheet “were not qualified enough". He said Kumar will be appealing to the Kerala High Court once the sentence is announced on Wednesday, 13 October.
“They should have registered a separate FIR and done an in-depth investigation in the case of the first snake bite. It is a criminal offence to investigate both incidents in one trial,” read a petition filed by the advocate.
“Suresh had told the police that he handed over the snake at 5.30 am but his cellphone location is not accessible so this could not be confirmed. There is no concrete proof that snakes were handed over to him,” he said.
Kumar’s counsel told The Quint that he had met with Suresh to talk to him about how he can handle the snake menace in the area and later raise awareness about it in the neighbourhood.
However, the investigating officers told The Quint that Suresh had given his clear statement and they had substantial proof that the snakes were indeed handed over to Kumar on two different occasions.
Murder for Greed, Not Just Dowry
S Harisankar, then Kollam rural Superintendent, told the media that Uthra's family had alleged domestic violence and dowry harassment by Kumar and his family. This harassment led to her murder, they had alleged.
Advocate Mohan Raj told The Quint that the murder was "not due to dowry, but because of greed".
"This murder was done with the aim of eliminating her while retaining all her wealth. He didn’t want just her dowry. A day before the murder, he had taken most of her gold jewellery," he said.
A portion of gold that Uthra had brought with her was found buried in soil behind their house in Adoor and was recovered.
The couple had married in March 2018 and they had an 18-month-old son when Uthra died. The child was then taken into the care of Uthra's parents.
The investigation into the role of Kumar's family in dowry harassment is yet to begin.
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