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This article is authored by Akash Krishnan, a student of ICFAI Law School, Hyderabad. It discusses in detail the Trial Court’s decision in Uthra Murder case and the principles the Court followed in arriving at its conclusion.

Introduction

The pre-planned murder of Uthra by her husband was termed as a diabolic, cruel, heinous and dastardly act. This is because of the fact that a differently-abled woman was sedated and was subjected to snake bites by the accused just for the sake of property and financial assistance that he would receive from the family of Uthra.

The Court, in this case, debated on whether the case falls under the ambit of rarest of rare cases and whether the nature of the crime is such that the collective conscience of the people is shaken. While analysing these questions in the light of mitigating circumstances in the favour of the accused, the Court concluded that the crime of the accused does not warrant the death penalty.

Now that we have understood the background of the case, let us try and understand the case in detail.

State of Kerala v. Suraj S. Kumar (2021)

Brief facts

The version of the prosecution

  1. The accused married the deceased, “Uthra” who was a differently-abled lady with the intention of obtaining financial gains, i.e., financial assistance that he would receive from her family post-marriage. After the birth of their first child, he sought to get rid of the deceased and in furtherance of it, he planned and committed an act of murder.
  2. The accused plan to kill the deceased by subjecting her to a venomous snake bite to avoid suspicion of foul play. In furtherance of the same, he contacted an individual over the internet for purchasing a venomous snake from him, i.e., a Viper for ₹10,000.
  3. In his first attempt, he placed the snake on the stairs and waited for the victim to pass through and get bit. However, the deceased saw the snake and raised an alarm. The accused thereafter captured the snake but instead of getting rid of it, he kept it in his possession.
  4. A few days later, the accused mixed some sedative tablets in the deceased’s food and when she was asleep, he released the snake on her body as a result of which she was bit by the snake. 
  5. The deceased woke up and cried for help but the accused did not take her to the hospital, thereby deliberately delaying medical aid to her.
  6. She was taken to the hospital by one Mr. Sujith and after a continuous treatment of 52 days, her life was saved and she recovered completely.
  7. After having failed twice with the Viper, this time, the accused purchased a cobra from the same individual for ₹7,000. He deliberately kept the cobra hungry before he took it to the house of the deceased. He once again mixed sedatives in the juice of the deceased and once she was asleep, he released the cobra onto her as a result of which she was bitten twice. He then deleted all call records with the individual from whom he purchased the snake and also removed traces of the sedative from the juice glass by washing it thoroughly.
  8. She was found dead in the morning by her parents. Thereafter, she was taken to the hospital by her parents and the doctors declared it as a medico-legal case. On post-mortem, it was found that the cause of death was cobra envenomation, i.e., death by poison of a cobra.
  9. At the time of the death, the brother of the deceased had filed an FIR for unnatural death under Section 174 of CrPC and a preliminary examination of the scene of occurrence was conducted by the police. After the deceased’s body was cremated, her parents suspecting foul play lodged a complaint regarding the same before the Rural District Police Chief, Kollam and during the investigation, the plastic jar used to keep the cobra was recovered.
  10. Based on the evidence and the investigation report, the Sessions Court charged the accused under Sections 302, 307, 326 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code. However, the accused pleaded not guilty and denied all the incriminating circumstances/evidence that was filed against him.

The version of the accused

  1. The accused stated that the individual from whom the prosecution had claimed snakes were brought from had actually visited him for the purpose of vehicle sales. He further stated that snakes were seen regularly in the vicinity of his neighbourhood and the individual, who had a certain expertise in this area, was asked to check for snakes in the house but he found no snakes.
  2. On the day of the first incident of snakebite, he claimed to have been outside with his friends. When he came back home, the deceased complained regarding pain in her leg and stated that she was bit by something while she was washing clothes outside the house. He gave the deceased some medication for pain and she slept. Later in the night, when she complained of unbearable pain, he informed Mr. Sujith and took her to the hospital. However, the hospital reports did not mention that she was bit by a Viper.
  3. On her discharge from the hospital, she requested to stay in her parents’ house. The accused slept in the kitchen while the deceased had slept with her mother along with the infant child. The deceased had asked for the windows to be opened as she was facing some difficulty adjusting to the AC.
  4. He further claimed that there were several CCTV cameras installed in the house and the entire incident was captured in the CCTV. However, the CCTV footage available with the police had no incriminating evidence against him. He further claimed that the family members were falsely accusing him because of disputes regarding property and the custody of the child.

Issues

  1. Whether the death of Uthra was a result of Cobra envenomation?
  2. Whether the accused intentionally caused Viper bites over Uthra and is, therefore, guilty of an attempt to murder?
  3. Whether the accused intentionally caused Cobra bites over Uthra and is therefore guilty of her murder?

Observations of the Court

The Sessions Judge ruled in the favour of the prosecution and held that the accused is guilty of all the offences that he was charged with. In light of the same, the Court made the following observations:

  1. The accused had pre-planned the murder of the deceased. He did not even take into consideration the fact that the deceased was still recovering from the Viper bite.
  2. The accused and the deceased were alone in the same room on both occasions, i.e., the night of the Viper bite and the night of the Cobra bite.
  3. The accused had purchased venomous snakes in order to murder the deceased and was looking for the right opportunity to strike in the guise of being a loving and caring husband.
  4. The accused had on both occasions sedated the deceased by mixing drugs in the food/juice and had attacked only when she was in deep sleep. The deceased drank/ate the same mistaking it to be the love of her husband.
  5. The act of commission of murder by the accused was diabolic, cruel, heinous and dastardly. He committed the murder by adopting a method of unparalleled wickedness.

Final decision of the Court

  1. The punishment for murder as provided under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code is death or imprisonment for life with a fine. Section 354(3) of the CrPC states that if the Court order a death penalty or life imprisonment, the judgement should mention the reasons for which such punishment is being prescribed. This provision is stricter w.r.t death penalties as in such cases the judgement should state the special reasons on account of the death penalty is being prescribed. In this regard, the Court noted that life imprisonment is a rule to which the death penalty is an exception.
  2. The Court cited the case of Macchi Singh v. State of Punjab (1983), wherein it was observed by the Supreme Court that for awarding the death penalty, the crime should be of such a nature that the collective conscience of the people is shook. In light of the same, the Court laid down certain guidelines for ascertaining the nature of the crime. These guidelines include the following factors:
  • Manner of commission of the crime.
  • The motive for the commission of the crime.
  • Socially abhorrent nature of the crime.
  • The magnitude of the crime.
  • The personality of the victim of the crime.
  1. The Court further referred to the case of Bacchan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) wherein it was held that the death penalty should only be inflicted in the rarest of rare cases and the circumstances of the offender that led him to commit the crime should also be taken into consideration along with the circumstances of the crime.
  2. The Court after citing these cases noted that for awarding the death penalty, firstly, the case should fall under the category of rarest of rare cases and secondly, the punishment of life imprisonment is not suitable to the crime. It further noted that the death penalty should be awarded only as a last resort.
  3. The Court also cited the recent case of Abdul Mannan v. State of Bihar (2019) wherein it was observed that while determining if a particular case falls under the ambit of rarest of rare cases, the circumstances of the crime along with the state of mind, socio-economic background etc of the criminal should be taken into consideration. Herein, the Court had reiterated the principle that life imprisonment is a rule to which the death penalty is an exception. It was further observed by the Court that while awarding a death penalty, the Court has to ensure that such an action is required because if the criminal is not subjected to death, he would remain a threat to the society and there is no possibility of reformation and rehabilitation of the criminal.
  4. In light of the aforesaid precedent, The Court thereafter looked into the mitigating circumstances in favour of the accused. The Court noted that the accused was only 28 years old, he had no criminal antecedents and nor was he part of any offence of grave nature of moral turpitude in the past.
  5. The Court noted that because of the young age of the accused and the absence of criminal antecedents, it cannot be deemed that the accused would be a threat to society. The accused had the time to reform and transform himself into a better man. In light of the same, the Court noted that it was not imperative that the accused should be subjected to the death penalty and held that imprisonment for life would be the appropriate punishment in this case.

Death penalty v. life imprisonment : appropriateness

As stated in the case of Macchi Singh, the death penalty should be awarded only in cases where the crime is of such a nature that the collective conscience of the people is shaken. The question, in this case, was whether the collective conscience of the people is shaken by the nature of the crime and if yes, whether life imprisonment in light of the mitigating circumstances was an appropriate punishment?

In Arvind Singh v. State of Maharashtra (2020), the Supreme Court noted that the possibility of rehabilitation and reformation should be examined along with the nature of the crime, i.e., whether the crime falls under the rarest of rare cases and whether it shook the collective conscience of the people. In light of the same, the Court commuted the death penalty of the accused to life imprisonment. The offence in question was the kidnapping and murder of an 8-year-old boy.

In Ravi Ashok Ghumare v. State of Maharashtra (2019), the Division Bench of the Supreme Court gave a split verdict. The offence in question was the rape and murder of a 2-year-old girl. While Justice Subhas concurred with the view of the High Court and confirmed the death sentence on the ground that it falls under the ambit of rarest of rare cases and the collective conscience of the people is shook, Justice Surya Kant commuted the death penalty to life imprisonment on the ground that there was an absence of criminal antecedents on part of the offender.

Conclusion

The Right to Life is a fundamental right and the Courts should exercise extreme caution when they are depriving someone of this fundamental right. The question of whether the murder of Uthra was socially abhorrent in nature so as to constitute the death penalty, is a question of fact and the opinion on this may vary from person to person.

The Court in this case has formed its opinion of the basis of the absence of criminal antecedents and chance of reformation. It is pertinent to note herein that the process of reforming a convict was declared as a part of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution. In light of the same, the Court has weighed its support in favour of the accused.

References

  1. https://thewire.in/law/uthra-murder-case-trial-court-collective-conscience-death-penalty 
  2. https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/thiruvananthapuram/uthra-murder-case-kerala-snake-to-kill-wife-7570783/ 
  3. https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/2021/oct/12/uthra-murder-case-strong-scientific-evidence-goes-against-greedy-sooraj-2370522.html 
  4. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/unmasking-killer-behind-cobra-how-kerala-cops-cracked-case-156521 

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