The tension was palpable outside Court Hall 21 in the Coimbatore district court complex as Mahila Court judge J Radhika, pronounced the verdict on Friday afternoon in the case of the sexual assault and murder of a seven-year-old girl near Thudiyalur in Coimbatore. It was only hours before that 34-year-old Santhosh Kumar was pronounced guilty of crimes under various sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the Indian Penal Code.
Around 3.15 pm, the judge sentenced Santhosh Kumar to death by hanging along with life imprisonment and seven years rigorous imprisonment and Rs 2,000 penalty for his crime. She also ordered a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the victimâs family and ordered the Superintendent of Police, Coimbatore to appoint an âefficient female investigating officerâ to probe the involvement of another man (yet to be identified), as per the results of the DNA analysis on samples taken from the victimâs body.
On March 25 this year, a seven-year-old girl went missing from near her house. She was last seen playing with her sister in front of her neighbourâs house. After searching for her for a few hours, the girlâs mother approached the police, stating that her daughter was missing. The next day, the police found her mutilated body in an alley near her house. In a weekâs time, the police arrested Santhosh Kumar and remanded him for sexually assaulting and murdering the girl.
The chargesheet in the case was filed in June and the trial began on October 16. Senior advocate U Sankaranarayanan was appointed as the Special Public Prosecutor for trial in the case, while the accused was provided counsel through the state legal aid service.
Speaking to TNM, Special Public Prosecutor U Sankaranarayanan said that there were three important points which helped the prosecution secure conviction for the accused.
Three crucial pieces of evidence
Santhosh Kumar, immediately on arrest, had confessed to his crime to the Tahsildar, Sankaranarayanan said.
âThat statement is a confession before an extra-judicial authority, in which he has himself stated that he raped the victim and killed her by strangling her. He has also admitted to have had sexually assaulted her twice in the past and told her not to tell anybody else about it,â he said.
The second piece of evidence relied on by the prosecution was the last seen together theory, which is a form of circumstantial evidence by which conclusions are drawn in murder cases. Though the Supreme Court has ruled that this theory alone cannot be the basis for convicting an accused, it has stated that coupled with other forms of circumstantial evidence, it can form an important portion of âevidenceâ.
Sankaranarayanan had earlier told TNM that since there are no eye-witnesses in the case, the prosecution had to rely only on circumstantial evidence to prove the accused guilty.
âAlong with this, we also had the autopsy report of the girl, in which the doctor confirmed that she was raped before she was strangled to death,â the prosecutor said, adding that these three combined facts were strong enough to get the accused convicted of the crime.
The sensitive case received media attention a day before the verdict as forensic test results indicated the involvement of another man in the crime.
The report, which was submitted to the court on November 1, had examined uterus swabs and smear from the victim and analysed the DNA profiles present in the samples. It stated that in addition to the DNA strains of the victim and Santhosh Kumar, the Uterus Smear of the victim had DNA strains of another male.
The victimâs mother, who got to know of the report, filed a plea in the court on December 26, seeking further investigation into the case to nab the other man. On Friday, the judge admitted the plea and has issued directions to the district police to do the needful.
Controversy around DNA report
The last minute revelations in the DNA report sparked controversy, suggesting a possible botch-up in the investigation by the authorities and negligence on part of the prosecution. In fact, on Friday, Santhosh Kumarâs counsel pleaded for a lesser sentence to the judge, quoting the DNA report and the fact that it stated that another man was also involved in the crime.
Independent lawyers have also expressed suspicion about the manner in which the trial of the case was sped up and the verdict was given before considering the plea of the victimâs mother. The police or the prosecution could have sought further investigation into the case or at least the court could have reserved the verdict till the report on further investigation was submitted, the lawyers opined.
Santhosh Kumarâs lawyer Kingsley Paul Robinson echoes similar questions. âThe police or the prosecutor should have requested for investigation into the observations made in the DNA report. We are not sure why it was not sought by the prosecution,â he told TNM.
Commenting that it is unclear how the government will deal with the case moving forward, the independent lawyers also stated that the DNA report has the potential to strengthen Santhosh Kumarâs case during the appeal.
When asked why the prosecution did not seek for investigating the case based on the forensic test results, Sankaranarayanan said that it was not relevant to do so at that point in time. âWe had enough evidence to prove that Santhosh Kumar had committed the crimes. Hence pursuing a new personâs involvement was not relevant at that juncture. Our plan was to get Santhosh Kumar convicted first and then let the court decide on the issue of another manâs involvement,â he said.