Kollam sessions court on July 17 pronounced a rarest of rare judgement in which a rapist-killer of a seven-year-old girl in Kerala was awarded three life sentences and 26 years of rigorous imprisonment apart from Rs 3.20 lakh fine.
The judge also stated in the verdict that the accused escaped the noose just because of his young age (25).
The most important part of this gruesome crime was that a plantain leaf had helped the sleuths nail the accused. This being a case without any eyewitnesses of the crime, the prosecution had largely depended on circumstantial and forensic evidence to prove the case and the accused youth, a native of Kolathukkara in Thiruvananthapuram district and a relative of the child, was convicted of rape and murder.
Onmanorama talked to the investigating officer, lawyer and relatives of the girl to find out how the prosecution presented a fool-proof case before the court and managed to get such a rare judgement.
“It was more than just a murder case to Eroor villagers,” says Abhilash, at present the Alappuzha crime branch circle inspector who had then investigated the case. “It is perhaps for the first time a police station in Kerala was crowded by villagers volunteering to record their statement in a rape and murder case,” he added.
Ammu (names of the victim and her relatives have been changed to protect identity) lived with her mother Soumya, maternal grandparents, Soumya’s younger sister and her two children at Eroor village in Kerala's Kollam district. Both Soumya and her sister Sreeji were divorcees. Ammu studied in class II at a school near her home. Soumya's husband abandoned her when Ammu was a toddler. Ammu was a familiar face for villagers as she used to talk to anybody who came across her. Sanal, a policeman from nearby town Anchal, says, “She was a very cheerful and talkative kid.” Ammu always flashed a smile and waved at all the villagers.
“I was having tea at a shop outside the police station when I saw this little girl walking to her school, accompanied by her granny. I smiled at her, then this smart kid stopped and called me uncle. She smiled so gracefully I bought her a wafer packet from the shop,” Sanal said.
Ammu’s grandmother Sunita used to take her to school every day. Sunita and her husband were daily-wagers.
Around mid-August in 2017, 25-year-old Sumesh (name changed), a native of Kolathukkara village in Thiruvananthapuram district, proposed Ammu's aunt Sreeji.
The family agreed and the wedding was held at a nearby temple. Sumesh convinced Sreeji and her parents that he left his house due to some family problems and he had no relatives to attend the wedding from his side.
All went well for almost a month. “I thought Sumesh would be a responsible son to us. He had all freedom in the house. He used to play with all the three children at home,” Sunita said.
According to the cops, Sumesh had hatched a plot to get closer to Ammu’s family. Soon after marriage, Sumesh asked Sreeji to delete all the wedding photos from her mobile phone. He had not allowed the family to engage a photographer during the wedding ceremony also. He told Sreeji that the marriage photos would worsen his ties with his family members.
However, during investigation it has come to light that Sumesh was a history-sheeter, who had spent a time in Kollam sub-jail.
The school, in which Ammu studied, allows students to wear the dress of their choice on Wednesdays. On September 27, 2017 (a Wednesday), Sumesh left home at 7am and waited for Sunita and Ammu (in a floral frock) at a nearby junction. When the duo reached the junction, Sumesh said he would drop Ammu at school. Sunita handed over Ammu’s school bag to Sumesh and returned.
Sumesh took Ammu in the opposite direction and boarded a bus to Kulathukara, his native village, and threw his sim out. (During interrogation Sumesh admitted that his ‘friends’ at Kollam sub-jail had advised him to throw away the sim before committing a crime.)
Sumesh bought food from a restaurant on their way. He made sure that the child was happy and did not look gloomy during the journey. Later, he took her to the reserve forest at Kulathukara, raped her and strangulated her.
Abhilash was serving as Anchal CI when the crime took place. He got a call from Eroor sub-inspector around 5pm on September 27, 2017, to inform that a schoolgirl was missing. Abhilash ordered a search operation even before filing an FIR. “It was getting darker. Anything could happen to a small child during night. We started off the search operations immediately,” he recalls.
From the beginning itself, it was clear that the accused was Sumesh. The school authorities had confirmed that Ammu hadn’t turned up at school. Sumesh also did not return home after the crime.
Abhilash dispatched a team to search for Sumesh’s house at Kulathukara. A large crowd had gathered at Eroor police station when Abhilash reached there after questioning Ammu’s family. Most of them were volunteers to help police in search operations and to record their statements regarding Ammu’s mysterious disappearance.
Ammu had smiled and waved at almost all the people she saw on her way to the forest. And almost all of them turned up at the police station to say that they saw her on that day but they didn't know where she was heading for.
Two students at her school told the cops that Ammu had called them aloud and waved at them before Sumesh took her in the opposite direction of the school. “We wondered why Ammu was going the other way,” they told the cops. Ammu had also announced in her school that she had got a new uncle at home.
Some shopkeepers at Eroor junction told police they saw Ammu boarding the bus to Kulathukara with a stranger.
Hunt in forest
An elderly woman, who worked in a banana plantations at Kulathukara, told a local policeman that she saw a little girl heading to the reserve forest with a young man. “It was raining heavily. I scolded that man for not taking an umbrella with him, cut a banana leaf and gave it to him to cover the girl's head,” she told cops.
It was already night when the cops reached the reserve forest. Rajan, the gatekeeper of the reserve forest, said he saw Sumesh and Ammu walking into the forest. Rajan asked Sumesh the purpose of visiting the forest and the latter said he was taking the child for a nature trail. Ammu had also smiled at Rajan and they exchanged a few words.
Rajan directed the police to the place where Sumesh took Ammu. After eleven-hour-long search, the police found Ammu’s body in the middle of Kulathukara forest around 4:30am on September 28.
Before heading for Kulathukara, the police had circulated on Whatsapp a photograph of Sumesh. This went viral as it was shared on Whatsapp and Facebook. By September 28 morning, Sumesh stepped out of the forest.
“We made use of the offline status of Sumesh. He had already thrown away his Sim card. So he had no way to get information about the progress of the case,” Abhilash said.
As soon as Sumesh came out of the forest, people identified him and caught him. Sumesh admitted to the crime without any remorse. He described to the police how he committed the heinous assault and the cold-blooded murder. He also accompanied the police to Ammu’s house, the crime spot and the route to the forest.
Plantain leaf proof
The plantain leaf turned out to be the most crucial evidence in the case during the trial. The hardest part for the police in the investigation was to establish with the help of forensic and circumstantial evidence that Sumesh committed the crime. There was not a single witness, who had seen the crime.
All the witnesses stated in the court that they last saw the girl with Sumesh. This was not enough to prove that he raped and killed her.
In this situation, the cops totally depended on forensic evidence. Abhilash had collected the banana leaf from the crime spot. “There wasn’t a single banana plant in the forest. I could easily identify that this was the plantain leaf given to Sumesh by the elderly lady. It was neatly cut with a knife. Later, forensic experts found finger prints of both the plantation worker and Sumesh on the leaf. This helped the prosecution to prove before the court that Sumesh had taken the girl to the forest and killed her. Traces of semen collected from Ammu’s body also matched with the samples of Sumesh.
The prosecution also argued that Sumesh had planned the murder before, that was why he took Ammu out on a Wednesday when the girl was not wearing a uniform. The school uniform would have attracted unwanted attention, putting Sumesh in trouble during the bus journey to the crime spot. Court agreed with this argument.
Emotional moments at trial
During the trial, Ammu’s mother Soumya was called. She kept mum all through the trial. When the court allowed her to leave the stand, Soumya said she had one request to the court. She asked whether she could hold Ammu’s sandals for one last time. The cops had found Ammu’s sandals from the crime spot and submitted it as evidence. When the court accepted her request, Soumya took Ammu’s sandals from the table and held it close to her chest and screamed, moving the whole crowd into tears.
The Kollam additional sessions court awarded Sumesh three life sentences, 26 years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 3.2 lakh. The court said the prosecution has fully succeeded in establishing Sumesh's crime and this was one of the rarest of rare cases. Sumesh was spared the noose, considering his young age.
Soumya touched Abhilash’s feet after the court pronounced the judgement, thanking him for the proper investigation.
Abhilash told Soumya that his own daughter is just seven years old. “I have to ensure justice to Ammu. That is the best thing I can do to my own child also,” he said.
Advocate Mohanraj, who was the lawyer in Kalluvathikkal hooch tragedy, appeared for the prosecution in the case.
Soumya's family sold their Eroor house after the incident and shifted to a remote village in Kollam where they live now.
“We have experienced hell within this lifetime. There is no recovery from the shock this incident gave us. We are still struggling to cope with the reality after two years of Ammu’s demise,” Sunita told Onmanorama.