Unmasking the killer behind the cobra: How Kerala cops cracked the case

From getting herpetologists to wildlife officials who themselves had been bitten by cobras and vipers, the prosecution put together a team of experts to ensure justice for Uthra.
Uthra and Sooraj
Uthra and Sooraj

Three main findings sealed the case against Sooraj S Kumar and established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that he murdered his wife Uthra with an Indian cobra snake, shows the 478-page judgment by the Additional Sessions Court in Kollam. In May 2020, as 25-year-old Uthra's parents raised doubts that their daughter's death was not simply due to a snake bite, but it was cold-blooded murder, the Kollam police knew that they will need scientific evidence to back any circumstantial findings in the case. In the weeks that followed, the police meticulously put together a team of multiple snake experts to study the snakebite on Uthra’s leg that led to her death on May 7, 2020. Among the experts were veterinary doctors, veterinary surgeons who conducted the necropsy (autopsy) of the snake, the carcass of which was exhumed during investigation, as well as wildlife officials, zoologists, herpetologists (a specialist of reptiles and amphibians), and snake handlers.

First, it was established that the snake that caused Uthra’s death was of the species Naja Naja, also known as the Indian spectacled cobra. The cobra was around 152 cm in length and was partly decomposed by the time it was exhumed. A committee was then set up by the Kollam investigating team to determine whether the snake bite on Uthra was natural or induced. The expert team studied the bites very carefully and found three main reasons why Uthra’s injury was not a natural snake bite.

The fang width

The normal length of the fangs of a fully grown cobra is 6 to 7 millimetres and the natural distance between the two fangs of a cobra — known as fang width — ranges between 1 cm to 1.6 cm. However, the fang widths of both the bites on Uthra’s body were more than 2 cm — there were two successive bites 2 mm apart from each other, and the distance between the two fangs was 2.3 cm and 2.8 cm, respectively.

An expert testified in court that the width increases in case of an induced or forced bite — when the cobra’s head is held and is made to secrete its venom. The skull of snakes is made up of movable joints, and when pressure is applied, the upper jaws, where the fangs are found, would expand. Therefore, in the case of an induced snake bite, the fang width would be larger than the natural bite fang width.


“Cobras are very frugal in spending their venom,” the judgment quotes the expert team’s findings. “Naturally, after one bite, they tend to evade the person. If the bites are from the same cobra, there would not be much variation of the inter-fang distance. If there are multiple bites, the bites would be at different places,” and not just 2 mm apart.

Another expert testified that even if a snake strikes for self-protection, it would immediately escape from the spot and would not bite the enemy again.

The team of experts was of the opinion that the bites were not accidental, and that it was a homicidal bite. But this opinion may not suffice in court, the investigating team under the then Kollam (rural) Superintendent of Police S Hari Sankar and an expert committee under Dr K Sasikala, the Head of Department of Forensic Medicine, moved to the next step.

The team carried out a dummy test using a real cobra, to find out the width of a natural bite and record it on video as evidence. A dummy similar to Uthra’s size was laid down on a cot. A fresh broiler chicken piece was tied on the dummy’s hand. A cobra was released on top of the dummy. However, the cobra did not make any attempt to bite the dummy and crawled down to the ground. Usually, cobras do not bite unprovoked, and they bite only moving objects, after displaying various defensive mechanisms, like raising its hood,  hissing, etc.

Next, the team removed the arm of the dummy with the chicken piece on it, and provoked the cobra. After several attempts and provocation, the cobra bit the chicken piece tied to the arm of the dummy twice. Before inflicting the bites, too, the cobra displayed defensive mechanisms. Then the team measured the fang width of natural bites on the chicken piece. Both were 1.7 cm. Then, the expert held the cobra by its head and induced two bites on the chicken piece. The fang width of these were found to be bigger and varied — one was 2 and one 2.4 cm.

This proved that the cobra hadn’t struck Uthra of its own volition, but was held by Sooraj in his hands by its head, and used as a weapon to inject poison into Uthra.

The climb and the cobra’s entry

The room that Uthra was found in was on the ground floor and had a window 62 centimetres from the ground level. There was no way the cobra could have entered the window on its own, as cobras can only raise themselves vertically to one-third of their length. The cobra that bit Uthra was 152 cm long, which means it could have raised itself to only around 50 centimetres from the ground against a vertical wall. Therefore, the snake involved could not have entered the house through the said window.

The air-conditioned room was tightly closed, and there was a very small gap (2-4 mm) between the door and ground, and so it was impossible for the snake to pass beneath the door.

“Due to the minimal gap between the door and floor of Uthra’s room and the nature of ventilator and bedroom drains (in the bathroom attached to the room) fixed with a cover, and the fact that the window of the dressing room was at a height of more than 2 metres, the possibility of the snake coming naturally into the room of Uthra was ruled out,” the judgment reads.

Moreover, Uthra’s room had the smell of kerosene and phenol which are snake repellents, which is another reason the snake could not have come on its own into the room. The cot in which Uthra had slept was not adjacent to the eastern window of the room. Cobras cannot climb through the pipe fixed to the wall of the house, the experts said.

Thirdly, Uthra had sustained the fatal bite late at night, allegedly in her sleep. However, the activity time of cobras is between 5 pm and 8 pm, and after that, cobras usually remain inactive. This also backed the experts’ opinion that it was not a natural snake bite.

The first bite

Another aspect of Uthra’s case that puzzled experts is the quick succession of the incidents of snakebites she suffered. Uthra was first bitten by a viper on March 2, 2020 — she underwent treatment and was discharged from hospital on April 22 — and just two weeks later, she was again bitten by a cobra on May 7. “It was unusual to have a cobra bite within 15 days after being discharged from treatment for Viper bite,” the experts testified.

The inconsistencies in the viper bite

The experts also studied the first instance in March 2020 where Uthra was bitten by a Russell’s viper and there too, the team found many inconsistencies. Uthra was at Sooraj’s parent’s house, which was located in a wet and marshy area, which is not the natural habitat of the viper, which meant it was brought there.

“Usually the habitat of the Russell's Viper is a dry area and they dislike wet areas. The locality of the residence of the accused was not suitable for Russell's Viper habitat. A Russell's Viper would not easily move through the wall and smooth surface of the tile to the staircase landing wherein it is found that the residence of Uthra. Moreover, Russell's Viper is non-arboreal (not residing on trees),” the judgment quotes the experts as saying.

“The house is a two-storeyed building. There were no supporting structures like branches of trees etc, which would enable the entry of a snake into the house. The general surrounding of the building was found unsuitable for Russell's Vipers.” The expert team found that a normal entry of a Russell's Viper to the bedroom on the first floor of the house where Uthra was bitten can be ruled out, as they are non-climbing in nature.

Secondly, Russell Vipers rarely bite dead animals, the experts testified in court. This was also cross-checked with a dummy test with a rat and a Russell’s viper. The team tied a dead rat and then a live rat to the dummy’s leg, and found that vipers attack their prey only when they detect thermal radiation and/or movement. This proved that the vipers would not voluntarily bite a sleeping person without provocation, indicating that this too, was an induced bite by Sooraj.

“Moreover, on examining the bite marks on the leg of Uthra, it was found that she had sustained the bite when she was lying down. In normal circumstances, when a snake bites a person, the bite mark would be on the ankle or foot horizontally placed,” the judgment shows. Uthra was bitten between her knee and her foot.

“Moreover, when a person is bitten by Russell's Viper and Cobra there would be excruciating pain. Even if a person is sleeping, if he sustains a bite from Russell's Viper he is bound to know it. Likewise, on sustaining a Cobra bite also there would be severe pain,” the experts said. In Uthra's case, her husband had given her sedatives, before unleashing the snakes on her.

In fact, the police team also brought in an official from the forest department who has been bitten thrice by a venomous Russell's viper and 10 times by a cobra. He testified to the court that there would be excruciating pain when Russell's Viper bites a person.

“Even if a person is sleeping, if he sustains a bite from Russell's Viper he is bound to know it. Likewise, on sustaining a Cobra bite also there would be severe pain,” the judgment says. “From the fact that Uthra was bitten by Russell's Viper between her knee and feet and that there is a possibility of the fangs of the Viper getting entangled on the nightgown worn by Uthra, there is a possibility of Uthra being aware of the Viper bite,” he had told the court, adding that the fact that Uthra did not immediately respond, it indicates that she was sedated and the bite was inflicted on her.

On the basis of these circumstances, the team was convinced that the Russell's viper was also deliberately brought to the first floor of the residence of the accused and the bite was induced while Uthra was sleeping.

The proximity of these two incidents, this scientific evidence by experts and testimonies from Uthra’s parents helped the prosecution present a strong case before the sessions court. The court held that the murder was “diabolic, brutal and heinous,” and the “offence was committed with unparalleled wickedness and in a ghastly manner.” Sooraj was found guilty of Uthra’s murder on October 11, and on October 13, he was sentenced to double life imprisonment and a Rs 5 lakh fine. 

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