Uthra murder case opens a new chapter — Homicidal Snakebite — in Criminology

(Left) A wedding pic of Sooraj and Uthra. (Right) S Harishankar IPS.

"Rock, paper, scissors, grenade launcher," says Darius Stone, portrayed by rapper Ice Cube, referring to weapons in the action flick 'xXx: Return of Xander Cage,' which has Vin Diesel and Deepika Padukone in the lead.

Stone might not have considered a natural lethal weapon, snake, to eliminate his target like Sooraj S Kumar used to kill his wife Uthra on May 7, 2020.

The incident, which shook Kerala, has now become part of the Criminology syllabus. "Homicidal Snakebite" explains a natural weapon like a snake employed to commit a murder, and how to investigate such an incident.

Each stage in the probe in the Uthra murder case has become a chapter in Criminology. The probe will be published in detail in the Journal of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation.

How Sooraj was nailed

Meticulous and scientific investigation by a team led by the then Superintendent of Police (Kollam rural) S Harishankar punched holes in Sooraj's version regarding Uthra's death. Harishankar, now an Assistant Inspector General attached to the police headquarters, details the probe to Onmanorama.

What made you suspect foul play in Uthra's death?

We were told that Uthra suffered snakebite twice. We felt it was odd and unnatural. The inquest and post-mortem examination did not hint at foul play. However, the Special Branch was monitoring the developments, and we came to know that Sooraj had taken the lead to conduct a 'sarpa puja' (a special ritual to please the serpent god). A week after Uthra's death, her father approached us with a complaint against Sooraj. He said Sooraj was avaricious, and wanted to know whether he had any role in her death. His doubt further bolstered our suspicion, and a full-fledged probe was launched.

What made you suspect that natural snakebite was not the cause of Uthra's death?

Uthra was bitten twice. First by a viper at Sooraj's house, and then, by a cobra at her parents' residence. Investigation at both the houses cleared our initial doubts. Along with examining the scene, we also studied about snakes, and their characteristics, which laid bare the contradictions in Sooraj's statement. The viper bit Uthra when she was on the first floor.

Russell's viper, a species of venomous snake, rarely climbs trees. Normally found in farmlands and agriculture areas, they bite when the prey or enemy is on the ground. If the incident had happened on the first floor, someone should have taken the snake there. While inspecting Sooraj's house, his mother pointed at a tree branch leaning towards a first-floor window. She said the snake had slithered in through that branch and window. She also said she had told Sooraj to cut the branch which he didn't. Her neighbours, however, gave a different version. They said the branch was recently pulled and made to slant towards the window. These two versions strengthened our suspicion.

The second snake which bit Uthra was a cobra. The incident happened at Uthra's house. How did the snake reach there? The room had two windows and three ventilators beside the door. The windows were at a height of 150 centimetres. We took the help of veterinarians. A cobra could lift itself up only to one-third of its total length. The snake which bit Uthra was 150 centimeters and it could not lift itself up for more than 50 centimetres.

Cobras normally hunt between 6 pm and 8 pm. After preying, cobras rest for long periods. Cobras do not strike without provocation. Once the venom glands are emptied, the elapid* would require some time to recharge, and it is miserly while injecting the venom. It strikes in three different ways: to scare away the foe, injecting a small amount of venom, or to go all-out and empty all the venom into the enemy. The cobra had bitten Uthra twice. The viper that climbed to the first floor, and the cobra which bit Uthra twice strengthened our suspicion that the snakes had not bit her on their own, but were forced to bite Uthra.

How did the probe lead to Sooraj?

There were complaints against Sooraj earlier. He was a wildlife enthusiast, and had goats, rabbits, dogs, etc. at his house. Six months before Uthra's deathc Sooraj had brought a snake home and exhibited it before his family. We tracked down snake-catcher Suresh, who admitted to giving a snake to Sooraj and getting it back later. Suresh and Sooraj had met only twice though they had contacted each other over the phone several times. Their meeting was just before Uthra was bitten by a snake. This made us confirm that the snake was forced to bite Uthra. Sooraj, however, did not admit it initially.

How did you confirm that Sooraj had committed the murder? When did he confess?

Sooraj is intelligent, and knows the characteristics of snakes very well. He stood his ground for five days during interrogation. He reiterated that he had got a snake, which he returned after a few days. Sooraj knew that viper would not climb to the first floor. He said the viper bit Uthra in the bathroom. But his mobile phone shed more details. He had researched about snakes on the mobile phone. There was a pattern. He researches about vipers, and a viper bites Uthra, and he stops studying vipers. Later he studies cobras, and Uthra suffers a cobra bite. Why did he research these two types of snakes? Why did he stop researching? He could not provide satisfactory answers to these two questions. His defence was that the snake had slithered in and bit Uthra. The prey's remains will be found in the snake's stomach for days. The post-mortem of the snake found its stomach empty. It means someone had been keeping the snake in a bottle for days. Sooraj budged when this evidence was presented to him, and confessed.

Police are arguing that Sooraj had forcefully made the snake bite Uthra. The argument is about homicidal snakebite, a novel method employed in recent times to commit murder. How will you prove this argument?

This case doesn't have any witnesses. We have only circumstantial evidence. Homicidal snakebite could be proved, and that is why we conducted a dummy experiment using a snake. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information has studied and reported different types of snakebites. There is precise information regarding the distance between puncture wounds. Punctures caused by a 180 cm snake would be two cm apart. The snake that bit Uthra was 150 cm long. The puncture wounds found on her body were 2.5 and 2.8 cm apart. It was an unnatural snakebite.

The distance between puncture wounds increases only when someone forcefully holds the snake's head. In such circumstances, its skull expands. This is scientific evidence. The dummy experiment, too, establishes this fact. We recorded the difference in the distance between puncture wounds caused by a snake voluntarily biting, and when it was forced to bite. The dummy experiment vindicated the scientific finding. The video of the experiment was submitted before the court. Even a six-foot cobra could not make puncture marks beyond two centimetres apart. In this case, a five-foot cobra made puncture marks of 2.5 and 2.8 centimetres. It happens only when someone has held the snake by its head and forced it to bite. Additionally, only Sooraj was present when Uthra was bitten. This is the major evidence.

How could it be proved that Sooraj had brought the snake and made it forcefully bite Uthra? Was the snake subjected to a DNA test?

Suresh had admitted to handing over the snake to Sooraj. Suresh is an approver in the case. There is forensic evidence for Sooraj's research on snakes. We also have evidence that Sooraj knew how to handle snakes. A DNA test established that Uthra was bitten by the snake that Suresh had given to Sooraj. We have also found the container in which Sooraj had kept the snake. The DNA found in the container matched with that of the snake on which the post-mortem was conducted.

Snakebites are painful, and those bitten could not sleep due to the pain. Uthra was unaware that she had been bitten. She was sedated without her knowledge. The visceral examination established that she had been fed sleep-inducing Cetirizine. The dummy experiment established that the snake had not bitten her on its own; it was forced to bite. Sooraj alone was with Uthra at the time of her death. These evidence establish the murder.

* Any venomous snake of the mostly tropical family Elapidae, having fixed poison fangs at the front of the upper jaw and including the cobras, coral snakes, and mambas.

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