Was sister Abhaya killed and then dumped in the well? Or was it suicide?

Was sister Abhaya killed and then dumped in the well? Or was it suicide?
Pope Pius X Convent in Kottayam, Sister Abhaya

Dr C Radhakrishnan who had conducted the autopsy on Sister Abhaya's body, and who had then recorded it was a case of drowning, told the CBI Special Court in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday that it was possible the nun could have been thrown into the well of St Pius Convent, Kottayam, after she was hit on the head with a “hard and blunt object”.

Nonetheless, when he was cross-examined by the defense lawyers, the former police surgeon conceded that Abhaya's dead body had exhibited classic signs of death by drowning. “Brownish watery discharge from mouth and nostrils. All fingernails bluish in colour. Sandy mud stuck on the front of the left ear and surrounding areas of the face,” Dr Radhakrishnan said.

After nearly seven hours of examination-in-chief, cross-examination and re-examination, the former police surgeon could not provide anything conclusive. The doctor, who was recently in the intensive care unit of a hospital, looked weak and was seated all through the proceedings.

He found it hard to rule out any possibility. Dr Radhakrishnan found the theories put forward by both the prosecution and the defense plausible. The ailing doctor ended up saying that the death could have been homicidal (the nun could have been killed and then thrown into the well), or accidental (she might have slipped and fallen into the well) or even suicidal.

Police surgeon's change of heart

The prosecution game plan was to establish that Sister Abhaya was first bludgeoned to death and then thrown into the well at the back of the convent. It was on March 28, 1997, the day after Abhaya was found dead, that Dr Radhakrishnan had conducted the post-mortem examination and noted that the cause of death was “drowning”.

After 16 years, at the request of the CBI, he visited the “scene of the occurrence” (St Pius Convent) for the first time. The visit prompted him to make a statement before a judicial first class magistrate revising his initial findings.

“I was not supplied with the inquest report or other documents related to the nun's death (in 1992). Material objects found on or near the body of the deceased should as a rule be forwarded to the autopsy surgeon. But the investigation officer had not sent me any material objects,” Dr Radhakrishnan said, explaining why he had a relook.

Before the CBI questioned him in 2007, he had said he was absolutely sure it was death by drowning. The CBI had shown the doctor a model of a hand axe and had asked him whether the contusion could have been made by such a weapon. He had said it was possible.

Intensity of head injury

Prosecution lawyer Nawaz asked whether he could rule out the possibility of assault on Abhaya prior to her drowning. “I cannot,” Dr Radhakrishnan said on Thursday. “A hard and blunt object could cause some of the injuries found on Abhaya's head,” he said.

There were six injuries: two lacerations at the back of the neck (injuries 1 and 2), three abrasions on her back (injuries 3 to 5), and a contusion on top of her head (injury 6). The contusion (Injury 6) is oblique suggesting that the nun was hit randomly with a hard object.

In his autopsy report, this is how Dr Radhakrishnan describes Injury 6. “Localised subarachnoid hemorrhage without sign of increasing intracranial tension”. Subarachnoid is the space between the arachnoid and pia matter, two tissues that cover the brain.

Dr Radhakrishnan told the court that even if the contusion is localised, and there was no skull fracture, it could still cause brain concussion. “Concussion can affect the consciousness of a person,” he said. However, he said a concussion could be detected only through a microscope and he had not conducted such a microscopic study at the time of the autopsy.

The former police surgeon also agreed that the contusion could also have had caused bleeding inside the brain, causing the person to lose consciousness and eventually die.

Meditative death

Wanting to further establish that Abhaya was unconscious while she fell into the well, the prosecution lawyer said the nun had shown no signs of terminal struggle. It is usual for a drowning person may catch hold of any material, grass or stone or sand, at the bottom of the drowning medium. Dr Radhakrishnan agreed that no foreign material like grass or sand was found inside or outside Abhaya's body.

That there was only a small quantity of water in Abhaya's stomach, 300 ml, was demonstrated as further proof that the nun was unconscious while drowning. The water intake of a drowning unconscious person is said to be low. Later, citing medical texts, the defense argued that the water in the stomach of a drowning unconscious person would be “nil or minimal”.

But just when it looked like the prosecution had a clear advantage the doctor said even conscious persons at times would not exhibit signs of terminal struggle.

Straight line of injuries

Senior defense counsel B Raman Pillai's strategy was to link injuries one and two to Injury 6, and rule out the possibility of the assault using a hard object. Raman Pillai first asked whether there was any external sign of Injury 6. Dr Radhakrishan said he found the contusion only when he dissected the two lacerations (injuries one and two) at the back of the head.

“So you mean to say that Injury 6 could be a continuation of injuries one and two,” Raman Pillai said. The police surgeon said yes. Pillai pounced on this. “You yourself had stated in your autopsy report that the injuries at the back of the neck could have been the result of the head hitting the rim of the inner circle of the well while Abhaya was falling into the well,” he asked. “It is possible,” Dr Radhakrishnan said.

Raman Pillai then said that the abrasions at the back of the nun's body was on the same left side as the injuries on the head. “Doesn't this suggest that all the injuries had happened at the same time, while she was falling into the well. Had she been assaulted, the injury marks would have been distributed on her body,” he said. Dr Radhakrishnan agreed that all the injuries were on one side.

Bounce back theory

Raman Pillai then brought attention to yet another possibility. “Were you told of a pipe inside the well with a thick metal foot valve at the base,” he asked the doctor. “Yes,” the doctor said. “Is it not possible that natural buoyancy had lifted the body that sunk deep into the water causing its head to hit the hard foot valve on the upthrust,” he asked. The doctor once again said yes.

The other defense counsel, J Jose, used medical texts to prove that drowning alone was the cause of Abhaya's death. The autopsy report had spoken of a “fine white lathery froth tinged with blood at the mouth and nostrils”. Jose asked the doctor whether this was regarded as a diagnostic sign of drowning. The doctor said yes.

Jose said the fine froth in the trachea and bronchi was also the result of a conscious Abhaya vigorously breathing in water. The doctor, who had earlier said she could have been unconscious, found the logic sound.

The autopsy had also found Abhaya's lungs water-logged and with rib marks. “Isn't this a classic symptom of drowning,” Jose asked. The doctor said yes.

Hemorrhage flip-flop

Jose said the localised subarachnoid hemorrhage was not severe enough to cause brain dysfunction. “Had it been a generalised hemorrhage, the blood would have infiltrated into the brain, caused intracranial pressure, fatally affecting the brain stem,” Jose said and added: “If the doctor had even a whiff of a doubt that the brain was damaged he would have gone for a microscopic examination.”

“That's right,” Dr Radhakrishnan said.

The prosecution lawyer, in his re-examination, asked whether the contusion had to be severe for it to damage the brain. “Not necessarily,” the doctor said.

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