No one killed Athira? Witnesses turn hostile, father acquitted in caste crime

Athira, a young woman from Kerala, died in 2018 after being stabbed in the heart. Two years later, her father who was accused of the murder, walks free.
No one killed Athira? Witnesses turn hostile, father acquitted in caste crime
No one killed Athira? Witnesses turn hostile, father acquitted in caste crime

Athira Rajan, a 21-year-old woman from Areekode in Malappuram district of Kerala, passed away due to excessive bleeding from her ruptured heart and lungs on March 22, 2018. The following day, she was to get married to Brijesh TT, a soldier in the Indian army and her partner of three years. Athira was from the Ezhava community and her alliance with Brijesh, a Dalit man, was vehemently opposed by her father Rajan.

The 21-year-old and her father are said to have had a tense argument on the day of her death, after which the 44-year-old man was accused of chasing his daughter into their neighbour’s house, where he cut her with a knife on the left side of her chest. But two years after her murder, the Manjeri district and sessions court has acquitted Rajan. “There was no sufficient evidence to connect the accused with the commission of the offence,” the court finally ruled. 

“There is no dispute that the victim died due to the stab injury sustained to her chest resulting in injury to vital organs (heart and lungs) and massive bleeding. But there is no evidence to show who inflicted the injury. Even though there are other injured witnesses (her brother who rushed to the kitchen and got injured), they also turned hostile to the prosecution. On going through the entire evidence, it is seen that there is no evidence to connect the accused with the commission of the offence,” the judgement reads.

Eye-witness family turns hostile 

Problems between Athira and Rajan had begun ever since she told her family that she wanted to marry Brijesh, a native of Koyilandi, in early 2018. The duo had been in a relationship since 2015, after they met for the first time at the hospital where Athira worked. 

Speaking to TNM in an earlier interview, Brijesh’s aunt Balamani had said that the family had planned the wedding for May 2018. However, the plans were changed when Rajan objected to the alliance, as the groom was Dalit. 

When things turned sour, the 21-year-old left her house and stayed with her friend for a week. Subsequently, Rajan filed a missing person complaint with the police and Athira was convinced by the police officers to go back to her house. At the police station, Rajan had also agreed to conduct the wedding within five days. 

"A day before the wedding, she had called me in the morning and said that she feared her father would do something terrible,” Brijesh, who was then posted in Uttar Pradesh, told TNM.  And his worst fears came true when he heard that Athira had been stabbed and that she did not survive the assault. 

Circle Inspector Shyju who investigated the case says that the immediate family had told the police in their statements that none of them had seen Rajan stabbing Athira, but that all of them had seen him emerge from the neighbour’s house with a blood stained knife after 4.45 pm, and that Athira was found lying in a pool of blood.

However, these six witnesses - Rajan’s sister Sulochana (PW2), his son and Athira’s brother Ashwin (PW5), Rajan’s brother Balan (PW15), his wife Sunitha (PW16), his neighbours Salma Bi (PW4) and Latheef (PW6), in whose newly constructed kitchen Athira was murdered - all turned hostile in court. 

“Even though the material witnesses who turned hostile were vehemently cross examined, nothing was brought out in cross examination to support the prosecution case,” judge M Ahammed Koya noted.

The knife and other material evidences

“On March 24, two days after the murder, during evidence collection, Rajan told us that he had hidden the knife. He confessed to us that he had kept it 59 metres away from his house, in an overgrown plot of land (parambu), and took us there. We collected the weapon which had blood stains on it and sent it for forensic examination. The forensic report revealed that the blood stains on the weapon matched with that of Athira’s blood. This report was attached with the chargesheet,” Shyju explained to TNM.

However, the court in its judgement found that this evidence wasn’t enough to link Rajan to the murder. 

The judgement states that Rajan’s confession to the police does not specifically mention that he used the knife for killing the victim. The confession statement only says, “I have hidden the knife in a plot near my house. If you will take me there, I will show you the place where it is hidden as well as the knife.” However, the statement does not explicitly say that he had committed the offence.

“The prosecution had no scientific evidence to establish their case. Our contention was that there were no fingerprints on the knife and that it could not be considered as evidence. As far as his clothes were concerned, there was no forensic trace of her blood on it,” Rajan’s lawyer PC Moideen told TNM.

Sulochana (Rajan’s sister) had told the police that Athira had died on her lap and that before dying, she had said that it was her father who had stabbed her. Other witnesses had stated that they had seen Rajan emerge from the house with a blood stained knife. Moreover, the prosecution had also said that an enraged Rajan had attacked his brother and son as well, inflicting wounds on them. Though these wound certificates were there, all the witnesses denied this in court.

“In court, all six of them testified that no such incident had taken place and that Rajan was not the person who stabbed Athira,” Vasu, the Public Prosecutor in the case, told TNM. 

When they were questioned about Athira being found dead in the house and Rajan leaving the same house during cross examination, the six eye-witnesses did not utter a word, he added.

The eye-witnesses’ oral testimonies would have been sufficient to link Rajan to the murder, but since they turned hostile in court, there was no direct evidence left in the case. 

Where did the case go wrong?

Eye-witness testimonies have more probative value than circumstantial evidence, which is only used to corroborate the direct evidence in cases where a crime has been committed. 

However, a well-known criminal lawyer in Kerala pointed out that the police’s overdependence on witness statements seems to have made the case weak. “These are family and friends and depending on their statements alone was not wise. Moreover, the police should have tried to get corroborative accounts - anyone in whom the witnesses had confided. This would have helped and so would have any scientific or forensic evidence,” the lawyer said.

The lawyer also suggested that if the family had been booked for abetment of murder, maybe a few of them would have turned approvers in the case.

In Athira’s case, all that was left at the end was the material evidence in the form of the knife used to stab her, and nothing to prove that this was indeed used by Rajan.   

And with his acquittal, it seems, no one killed Athira.

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