A truthful thief, an unlikely confession and a secret surgery: How a priest and a nun were sentenced to life

A truthful thief, an unlikely confession and a secret surgery: How a priest and a nun were sentenced to life
Father Thomas M Kottoor and Sister Sephy. File photo

The travails of a petty thief, a priest's unlikely confession, nail marks unseen by an autopsy surgeon and a surgical procedure to erase signs of a sexual encounter are the crucial slices of evidence that prompted CBI Special Court judge K Sanilkumar to deliver a guilty verdict against Father Thomas M Kottoor and Sister Sephy in the tumultuous Sister Abhaya case.

The only person living who claims to have seen Fr Kottoor sneak into St Pius X Convent on the night of Abhaya's death (March 27, 1992) is a thief. His name, Raju, better known by his moniker Adacka Raju.

The judge himself terms the witness "unusual". Yet, he considers Raju highly trustworthy.

Thief who speaks the truth

"PW3 (prosecution witness 3, Raju) may have been a thief, but he was and is an honest man, a simple person without the need to dissemble, a human being who became a professional thief by the force of circumstances, but a speaker of truth nonetheless," the judge says in his 229-page order.

The judge says that Raju's statement, that he had crept up to the terrace of the Convent to steal copper rods from the lightning arrester, is corroborated by another witness, Shameer, to whom he had sold the copper rods. Shameer had also testified that his last deal with Raju was on the morning after Abhaya's death.

Raju came into the picture when copper rods were unearthed during a raid of Shameer's shop by the Crime Branch. On interrogation, Shameer said Raju was the man who sold him the rods. Then, at the instance of superintendent of police K T Michael large quantities of copper and water meters, actually purchased by Shameer's father, were shown as stolen items recovered from Raju and 40 criminal cases were registered against him.

Raju is spoken of as a tragic figure deserving of respect. "He was kept in custody by the Crime Branch for 58 days and tortured to make him falsely confess to the murder of Abhaya. PW3 stood his ground and did not budge even an inch, whereupon he was offered a substantial monetary reward and a job for his wife and the meeting of the educational expenses of his children and a house to live in, but he did not succumb to these blandishments," the judge says in the order.

Confession of an affair

The only evidence linking Kottoor to Abhaya's death is an indirect confession he is said to have made to Kalarcode Venugopalan, a rights activist and a serial litigant.

Kalarcode had told the court that Kottoor had confided to him in the Kottayam Bishop's House that he and Sr Sephy were like husband and wife. The defence argued that Kottoor and Kalarcode were strangers to each other for Kottoor to confide an extremely private affair, and further the confession was made late , in 2008.

The defence counsel had also argued that the confession was not included in the remand application by the CBI investigating officer, Nandakumaran Nair.

Affair is proof of guilt

The defence had argued that even if what Kalarcode said was true, it did not mean anything. But the judge, in his order, said it would. "The alleged sexual act of A3 (Sephy) and A1 (Kottoor) was the cause of the murder and the murder was the effect of the sexual act. It is in the light of this analysis that I have to appreciate the evidence of PW6 (Kalarcode)," the order said.

Even a major contradiction in Kalarcode's back-to-back statements, regarding the date on which he claims to have extracted the confession from Kottoor, was brushed aside as trivial. "No one can expect a tape recorder memory from a witness. Minor discrepancies will always be there in the evidence of witnesses, especially when the matter has a checkered history of long delay," the order said.

Sex erasure surgery

As for Sephy, her admission during interrogation that she had "shared a bed with a relative" was considered proof of her admission of guilt.

The judgment has also found convincing the evidence produced by the prosecution that Sr Sephy had undergone hymenoplasty (the reconstitution of hymen) right before she was arrested by the CBI in 2008.

"It is clear that A3 (Sephy) made an attempt, and a very successful attempt at that, to give the fact of the case an appearance favourable to herself," the judge noted.

Photographer's word against a doctor's

A vexing question during the trial was whether the injuries found on Abhaya's body were inflicted before her fall into the well or during her fall. At least two, the judge said, without doubt were made before she fell into the well. These were nail marks on either side of the neck.

These marks were but seen only by a local photographer, Varghese Chacko, who was called by the police to take pictures of Abhaya's dead body. The doctor, Dr. C. Radhakrishnan, who did the autopsy has not not recorded these marks.

So who should the Court believe, a common witness or a medical expert.

The Judge found the still photographer's account far more reliable. He said the autopsy doctor would have failed to notice such injuries. "The evidence of PW7 (photographer) will prevail over the evidence of PW33 (the doctor) as PW7 was specifically deputed for capturing the close-up photographs of Sister Abhaya and his chance of noticing such injuries is more than that of PW33," the judgment said.

Further, it said the doctor was not able to rule out the possibility of such nail mark injuries.

Archimedes principle

There were six other injuries, and the order said most were the result of violence inflicted on Abhaya before she fell down the well. Dr Radhakrishnan's statements were not conclusive, he said the injuries could have been caused either by hitting Abhaya with a blunt object or by Abhaya's head hitting a hard object inside the well as the body comes up on the upthrust.

This buoyancy theory was rejected. "If the body had travelled to a certain depth through the water it means that there is no object to block this movement of the body through the water, and consequently there would be no object for the body to strike against while moving towards the surface of the water due to natural buoyancy, if any," the order said.

The judgment also said Dr Ramachandran was contradicted by another forensic expert Dr V Kanthawami, whom the judge calls "the illustrious medical expert".

The death of Sister Abhaya was due to the combination of head injury and drowning, the order said.

Suicidal or homicidal

The defence argument was that Sr Abhaya was of unsound mind and had committed suicide.

The Judge found in the testimonies of convent mates and staff, even those who had turned hostile like Sr Shirley and cook Achamma, evidence to conclude that Sr Abhaya "was a very smart, pious, honest, simple, perseverant and punctilious girl, meticulous in all aspects, leading an altruistic life and that it was simply impossible for her to have ended her life on her own as portrayed by the defence."

The statement of Sr Shirley, who had turned hostile, was used to explode the suicide theory. Sr Shirley had testified that she and Abhaya got up at 4 a.m. and had combined study for 15 minutes on the fateful day.

"A person bent on ending her life, and ending it in the immediate future at that, would not worry about her academic prospects, would not deny herself sleep for the sake of improving her examination performance, and would not devote herself passionately to study, much less engage herself in combined study with her fellow students. This single fact is sufficient to blow the suicide theory sky high," the judge noted.

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