Burnt to death or eloped with lover? Truth hidden in DNA of missing woman's daughters

Article image Haritha - 3
Representational image. Onmanorama

Thirty-year-old Sunitha, a mother of two, had vanished nine years ago in March 2013, on the day her husband had beaten her unconscious and poured kerosene over her. Nearly three weeks later, a heavy sack was dredged out of the septic tank behind Sunitha's house at Anad, a village in the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram.

Inside the sack was charred remains of a body. It was mostly skeleton and whatever little left of the skin was rotten. Certain parts, like fingers and toes, were seen separate from the main frame. It was beyond recognition. It was the suspicion of some locals that prompted the Revenue Divisional Officer to order a search of the septic tank nearly three weeks after Sunitha's disappearance.

A post-mortem examination revealed that it was a woman's body. Some body parts and bones found in the sack were sent for DNA analysis and it was found that all of them belonged to a single person. The possibility of more than one body stuffed in a single sack, therefore, was ruled out.

The post-mortem examination confirmed kerosene burns. The report also said the victim was alive when she was set on fire.

Then came a 'Graham Greene'-like twist. There was a burnt woman's body but the investigating officer was not able to produce any scientific evidence that would categorically establish that the body was Sunitha's.

No DNA tests of Sunitha's children or her parents were done to establish without doubt that the body was indeed hers. A skull-face superimposition test, an electronic forensics technique in which the skull is superimposed with a photograph of the assumed victim, was also not conducted.

As a result, the investigation was carried out on the mere assumption that it was Sunitha's body. Her husband Joy Antony, an autorickshaw driver, was made the prime suspect.

The allegation is that he was a physically abusive man who wanted to get rid of Sunitha to marry a fourth time. Sunitha was his third wife -- he is said to have abandoned his first two wives. He had two children with Sunitha; both girls, then aged six and seven.

In her testimony before the Additional District Sessions Court in Thiruvananthapuram on Monday, November 21, Joy's second wife said that Joy was a violent sexual pervert who would get a high at the sight of blood.

The prosecution case is that Joy thrashed Sunitha's head with a metal rod causing her to fall unconscious. As she lay senseless, Joy doused Sunitha with kerosene. The two girls, now 15 and 16, are witnesses.

"They saw their father hitting their mother on the head with a rod and she dropping unconscious on the floor. They also saw their father pouring kerosene on her. But at that point the children were taken away from the scene by their grandmother (Joy's mother)," public prosecutor M Salahuddin said. The girls had testified as much before the court. Joy's mother, the other witness, had died.

If at all their father had torched their mother's kerosene-drenched body, the children had not seen it. Since the body was nothing more than a skeleton and unrecognisable and no one alive had seen joy burning his wife, the defence put forward a plausible argument: the body pulled out from the septic tank was not Sunitha's. Sunitha is alive.

If so, where has she disappeared? No one had seen her after the night her husband had knocked her down and soaked her in kerosene. The defence argued that she was in love with some man at that time and had eloped with him.

The District Sessions Court would have had no choice but to go with the defence argument had the public prosecutor Salahuddin not come up with an inventive solution. "When I read the forensics report submitted in 2013, I came across a sentence that said that the bones that had been collected for analysis have been preserved in the State Forensics Laboratory for future analysis," Salahuddin told Onmanorama.

He pounced on this and placed a request before the court. "I pleaded that the blood samples of Sunitha's two children be taken and sent for DNA profiling," the public prosecutor said. The court granted his prayer on November 20.

After the mother's disappearance, both the girls have been adopted by a couple in Alappuzha. Their samples will be taken within the court premises on November 23. The results are expected by November 26.

"If their samples match with the DNA preserved in the laboratory, we can conclude that the body dumped in the septic tank was Sunitha's," Salahuddin said.

Joy, married for a fourth time and on bail, will then be in serious trouble. "If the test shows that the body belonged to the biological mother of the two girls, it is near incontrovertible evidence against Joy,” said Clarence Miranda, Joy's lawyer.

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