A combination of witness statements and circumstantial evidence helped the prosecution win the case, here's a look at what the judgement said.

Sister abhaya in a habit with a grey background
news Sr Abhaya Murder Case Thursday, December 24, 2020 - 20:14

After 28 years, a CBI court in Thiruvananthapuram finally convicted the accused in the Sr Abhaya murder case. Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy, accused number 1 and 3, in the murder of the 21-year-old nun, were sentenced to life tern in prison. In many ways, the prosecution faced several challenges - the biggest being many of the witnesses turning hostile during the trial. Crucial evidence from the time that Sr Abhaya’s body was retrieved from the convent well webt missing, allegedly destroyed by the accused and the Crime Branch officials who first investigated the case. Further, there were no forensic reports of the clothes that Sister Abhaya was wearing when she was found dead in the well.

But despite these challenges, the prosecution won the case, with the help of key witness statements including that of a former thief, findings of forensic experts and tonnes of circumstantial evidence. Here are the biggest findings which led to the CBI court convicting the accused.

Nail marks on Sr Abhaya's neck captured by a photographer

Photographer Varghese Chacko, prosecution witness number 7, who clicked close up shots of the deceased, found nail marks on her neck. Chacko, a photographer at the Venus Studio in Kottayam, took the photos of the body as per the instructions of the Kottayam West Police station. While taking the pictures, he noticed nail marks on Sister Abhaya’s neck and body.

“Nail mark injuries as stated by PW7 are injuries which cannot be inflicted while the body is submerged in the water or is enroute towards water,” the judge observed. This indicated that there was a struggle before the nun’s death.

The court also added that there was no conflict in the report by (PW33) Radhakrishnan, a forensic expert and findings of Varghese. While Varghese confirmed that there were nail marks, Radhakrishnan’s report does not mention this. However, the court said that just because Radhakrishnan did not see the marks, does not mean it was not there. Though the defense made many attempts to discredit these photographs, the judge rejected these concerns and accepted them as proof in the case.

Injuries caused by blunt object

According to C Radhakrishnan, forensic expert and prosecution witness number 33, three injuries - 1,2 and 6 (on the deceased’s head) could have been caused by the impact on the body by a hard and blunt object.

Dr Radhakrishnan said that he could not rule out the possibility of an assault on the body of Sister Abhaya, prior to its fall into the water. He also conceded that any ‘hard and blunt’ object could have caused injuries 1 and 2. However, this theory recieved a setback when Radhakrishan during his cross questioning said that the injuries may also have been caused during her fall into the well. The latter statement led to the defense arguing that Abhaya's death was not a murder, and instead was a suicide.

However, to cross verify Radhakrishnan’s findings, another forensic expert and Witness 31, Dr Kanthaswami, was called in. Dr Kanthaswami said that injuries 1 and 2 are oblique and could not have been caused by impact of pipes in the well. He also confirmed that there was no way the body could have sustained these injuries while in the water.

"With the depositions of PW 33 and PW 31, it is “lucid that injuries 1, 2 and 6 posess a definite characteristic of being caused to the person of Sister Abhaya before her body was submerged,” the judge’s order read.

By way of the evidence put forth by PW31 and PW33, the court was convinced that Sister Abhaya died due to a combination of head injury and drowning.

Not suicide

The court ruled out suicide through the statements of various witnesses, including nuns, who resided with Sr Abhaya at the Pius X convent.

“It is proved that the deceased Sister Abhaya was a very smart, pious, honest, simple, perseverent and punctilious girl meticulous in all respects. She was leading a happy and altruistic life and also proved that it was simply impossible for her to have ended her life on her own through the statements of Witnesses, 1, 9, 11, 25, 32 and 14 ((Sister Anupama,Nisha Rani, Achamma, Sister Elicitta, Sister Sherly, who were inmates of the convent and Professor Thressiamma, Abhaya's lecturer, respectively," the judgment reads.

Further, strange and abnormal disturbances in the kitchen work area and the wash area of the convent hostel along with the scattered footwear, a nun’s habit lying underneath the door, a fallen water bottle etc  through the evidence of Thressiamma (the cook) and other witnesses who lived in the convent indicated traces of struggle prior to Abhaya’s death.

Statement of former thief ‘Adakka’ Raju - a key witness in the case

The court not only accepted but treated with great importance the statement of Adakka Raju, a former thief who stated that he had seen A1 Father Kottoorg going into the convent on the night of the murder. Raju had also entered the convent to commit theft.

Raju told the court that he was sitting on a tree to scale down the convent wall, when he saw two men climbing down the staircase at the rear end of the building. He identified one of them as Father Kottoor but could not identify the other man, which resulted in Accused 2, Father Poothrayikkal being dismissed of all charges.

In the judgement, it is noted that Adakka Raju in his deposition said “Kootturachane Enikku Ariyam” (recognise Kottoor Achan). “PW3 may have been a thief, but he was and is an honest man, a simple person 90 without the need to dissemble, a human being who became a professional thief by the force of circumstances, but a speaker of truth nonetheless,” the judgement further read.

Sr Sephy’s hymenoplasty surgery

According to the CBI’s findings, Sister Abhaya saw the three accused in a sexual act, and fearing exposure, they murdered her and dumped her in the well. In this context,  Dr Lalithambika Karunakaran’s deposition that Sr Sephy could have undergone a hymenoplasty surgery to repair her hymen and ‘to artificially shape her body as that of a virgin’, assumes significance as evidence in the case.

“Such a matter may not be a question to be decided in a criminal court of law under more normal circumstances, but the case in hand is spiced with allegations of sex and murder, where the alleged sexual act of A3 and A1 is a relevant fact as it was alleged as a cause and effect of the fact in issue of this case,” the judgement read.

Witness number 6 and Father Kottoor

Witness number 6 is a self described social activist named Kalarcode Venugopal. According to his deposition, Venugopal had met Father Kottoor at the Bishop House in Kottayam and there he said that Kottoor had admitted to have lived as ‘husband and wife with Sr Sephy’.

“I am a normal human being, I am not made of iron and stone. I made a mistake. Sephy and I have lived as husband and wife. Here everybody does that right, then why punish just me?”, were the words which was said to Venugopal br Fr Kottoor, in the former’s deposition in court. This the court admitted as evidence to prove that the duo were in a relationship and had sufficient motive to kill Sister Abhaya.

Read- Sister Abhaya murder case: The crucial witnesses who changed their accounts in court

Sister Abhaya murder case: Is it really justice delivered?

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