Forensic evidence helps solve murder

Forensic and circumstantial evidence proved crucial for the police in establishing the murder of Ambika (35), whose death was initially referred as one caused due to accidental burns, by the Varkala police in July, 1996.

A police reinvestigation into Ambika's death resulted in the conviction of her husband, Sugathan, who was given a life term for the murder of his wife, by the Additional District and Sessions Judge, U. Saratchandran, recently.

The charred body of Ambika had been found outside the kitchen of her house on July 7, 1996. At the time of Ambika death, only her husband Sugathan was present in the house. Sugathan told the police that his wife's death was the result of a fire caused by a leak in the cooking gas cylinder.

He had suffered 20 per cent burns on the left side of his body when he tried to rescue her. Sugathan had also roused the neighbours by crying out that the cooking gas cylinder had caught fire.

Initially, the Varkala police referred Ambika's death as one due to accidental burns. Later, they booked Sugathan on charges of abetting the suicide of his wife. Ambika's mother gave a complaint to the Chief Minister that she was not satisfied by the police probe.

The forensic expert, Dr. Rema, who conducted the post-mortem examination on Ambika's body had reported that death was caused due to severe burns (99 per cent). She also noted in her report that a strong smell of kerosene emanated from the body. This finding was at odds with Sugathan's claim that Ambika had died in a fire caused by an LPG cylinder leak.

The claim of the accused that he had suffered 20 per cent burns on the left side of the body while trying to rescue his wife was also contested by the forensic expert. She deposed before the court that any attempt to rescue a victim with 99 per cent burns could cause extensive burn injuries on the front part of the body of the rescuer.

The kitchen where Ambika sustained the burn injuries had not been sealed by the police and was in use by other members of the house. During the course of the re-investigation, the police reconstructed the scene of crime relying on photographs taken by the police immediately after Ambika's death was reported.

`There was no sign of any extensive fire in the kitchen. The cooking utensils on the gas stove were not disturbed. The argument that a fire caused Ambika's death seemed weak," said B. Sasidharan, Circle Inspector, Varkala and now Dy.SP (Crime Branch), who reinvestigated the case.

Police also examined the plastic chair in which Ambika was reportedly sitting when the fire broke out. Only the top portion of the back-rest and arm-rests were scorched. The available evidence suggested that somebody could have poured kerosene over Ambika while she was sitting on the chair and set her on fire.

The investigation team also verified the conduct of the accused, Sugathan, before the crime and after. Police found that Sugathan had doubts over Ambika's fidelity. A neighbour told the court that Sugathan, while he was employed as a driver in the Gulf, used to call his house at night and enquire about Ambika's wife's whereabouts. Ambika's son deposed before the court that there were regular fights between his father and mother, which often ended in Ambika getting beaten by her husband.

Ambika's relatives told the police and subsequently the court that Sugathan was pressuring Ambika to sell of their house at Varkala and move to a new place. However, Ambika had stiffly resisted his moves to sell the house. The statements of the witnesses in the case and other circumstantial evidence helped the police establish the motive in the crime.

In the judgement, the court observed that the investigator had `made a detailed investigation in the case, leaving no stone unturned'. The case was prosecuted by the Special Prosecutor, Celine Wilfred.

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