Murder By Poisoning : Is Conviction Possible Even Without Detecting Poison In The Body Of The Deceased?

Murder By Poisoning : Is Conviction Possible Even Without Detecting Poison In The Body Of The Deceased?

A discussion on a notable case which shows how conviction for murder by poisoning can be based solely on circumstantial evidence.

Is it possible to convict a person for murder by poisoning even without tracing out the poison and without discovering the mode of administering it?

This question is being hotly debated among legal circles, ever since the Kerala police made an astonishing allegation that a woman named Jolly Joseph of Koodathayi village of northern Kerala had caused deaths of six of her family members over a span of 17 years by administering them cyanide.

An answer to this question is found in the decision of Supreme Court in the case Anant Chintaman Lagu v State of Bombay(1959).

Conviction on the basis of conduct of the accused

The Anant Chintamanu Lagu case was one of murder by poisoning. Interestingly, even though the courts found the accused guilty of murder, the actual poison which was used in the crime was not identified, let alone traced. The conviction in the case was mostly on the basis of the previous and subsequent conduct of the accused.

The case had its genesis as follows. A 45 year old widow, fell unconscious during an overnight train journey from Pune to Bombay. As soon as the train reached Bombay at around 5.30 AM on November 13 1956, Anant Chintamun Lagu, a Pune-based doctor who was travelling in the same compartment as the woman, took her to GT hospital in Bombay.

Lagu told the doctors at hospital he had not known the woman before the journey and during the course of journey he had gathered that her name was "Indumati Paunshe". He provided his address in Pune to the hospital for contact.

The lady died at hospital during treatment at around 11.30 AM. To the doctors at hospital, the lady seemed like a destitute. She had no money or gold ornaments. They sent a telegram to Lagu asking for him to make arrangements for removal of her body. No response came. Two days later, the hospital received a letter from Lagu, which stated that the woman had a brother living in Calcutta, and that he will come to hospital for receiving her body.

But no one came to claim the body. The body was subsequently handed over to medical college for use of students for dissection and study. While so, one of the clerks in the medical college noticed some suspicious marks on the body. Based on this, autopsy of the body was done, seven days after death.

The autopsy and the chemical examination of the viscera did not show anything unusual. The body was later cremated.

Meanwhile, in Pune, relatives of a wealthy widow named Laxmibai Karve were feeling anxious about her missing for many days. One day, they received a letter, purportedly written by her, stating that she she had left on a pilgrimage tour to holy places of India during which she had met and married a Joshi at Rathodi. They also received further letters from Laxmibai stating that she had no intention of returning to Poona or to see anybody there and so nobody need bother to find out her whereabouts.

The relatives felt something strange about these developments. They knew that Laxmibai Karve had a long history of diabetic and uterine problems, and Dr Anat Chintamun Lagu was her regular doctor. They also came to know that Laxmibai and Lagu had together boarded a train from Pune to Bombay for meeting a doctor there.

Further inquiries revealed that a lot of properties and bank accounts of Laxmibai Karve were transferred to Lagu based on documents, which were apparently forged.

The relatives, who grew suspicious, lodged a police complaint. The police in due course submitted final report accusing Lagu of committing murder of Karve by poisoning her during the train journey with the motive of grabbing her wealth.

Proof of murder

The trial court convicted Lagu for murder and sentenced him to death. This was confirmed by the High Court and the matter reached the Supreme Court through appeal.

The vexed question before the apex court was how to sustain the conviction in the case when there was no direct evidence of poisoning.

The court had before it the medical evidence of one Dr. Mehta, who after deep and thorough study of the medical records and autopsy report of Laxmibai expressed the definite opinion that she did not die of diabetic coma as told by the GTH doctors.

The majority of Justices M Hidayatullah and S K Das of the three judges bench took into account following factors to sustain the conviction :

  • Lagu feigning ignorance about the real identity and background of Laxmibai before the doctors at GTH hospital.
  • Lagu suppressing the fact that he had known Laxmibai for long as her doctor and not revealing her medical history to GTH hospital.
  • The accused suppressing the original name of Laxmibai from GTH hospitals and telling them her maiden name "Indumati".
  • His act of lying about her non-existent brother in Calcutta.
  • His act of abandoning Laxmibai in hospital.
  • His act of removing the cash,ornaments and belongings of Laxmibai before admitting her to the hospital.
  • He influencing Doctors of GTH hospitals to avoid post-mortem of Laxmibai by stating that it will cause stigma to her family.
  • The subsequent acts of forgery of documents for transferring Laxmibai's properties to the accused.

The Court observed as follows :

"If Laxmibai died in circumstances which prima facie admit of either disease or homicide by poisoning, we must look at the conduct of the appellant who brought her to the hospital, and consider to what conclusion that conduct unerringly points. If the appellant as an honest medical man had taken Laxmibai to the hospital and she had died by reason of disease, his conduct would have been entirely different. He would not have taken her to the hospital bereft of property with which she started from home; he would not have given a wrong or misleading name to cover her identity; he would not have given a wrong age and wrong history of her ailments; he would not have written a letter suggesting that she had a brother in Calcutta, which brother did not exist; he would not have abandoned the corpse to be dealt with by the hospital as an unclaimed body; he would not have attempted to convince the world that she was alive and happily married; he would not have obtained her property by forgeries, impersonation and other tricks indulged in both before and after her death; but he would have informed her relatives and done everything in his power to see that she was properly treated and stayed on to face whatever inquiry the hospital wished to make into the cause of death and not tried to avoid the postmortem examination and would not have disappeared, never to reappear. His prevarications about where' Laxmibai was, make a big and much varied list, and his forgeries cover scores of documents."

Discovery of poison not always necessary.

The Court added that discovery of poison may not be always by possible as administration of poison is done in secrecy.

"A case of murder by administration of poison is almost always one of secrecy. The poisoner seldom takes another into his confidence, and his preparations to the commission of the offence are also secret. He watches his opportunity and administers the poison in a manner calculated to avoid its detection. The greater his knowledge of poisons, the greater the secrecy, and consequently the greater the difficulty of proving the case agaisnt him. What assistance a man of science can give he gives; but it is too much to say that the guilt of the accused must, in all cases, be demonstrated by the isolation of the poison, though in a case where there is nothing else such a course would be incumbent upon the prosecution."

The Court held that the medical evidence of experts and the circumstances of the case may be sufficient to infer that death must be the result of the administration of some unrecognized poison to the victim. A conviction can be rested on circumstantial evidence if it is so decisive that the court can "unhesitatingly" hold that the death was not a natural one.

"the medical evidence in the case and the conduct of the appellant unerringly pointed to the conclusion that the death of the deceased was the result of the administration of some unrecognised poison or drug which would act as a poison and that the appellant was the person who administered it."

The Court held that three elements were necessary to be proved to establish a case of poisoning :

  1. That death took place by poisoning.
  2. That the accused had the poison in his possession.
  3. That the accused had an opportunity to administer the poison to the deceased.

In this case, for the first fact, there were inferences from the expert medical opinion of Dr Mehta. There was no direct evidence for these facts. The train journey of the accused and the victim was regarded as the opportunity to administer the poison.

"If circumstantial evidence, in the absence of direct proof of the three elements, is so decisive that the Court can unhesitatingly hold that death was a result of administration of poison (though not detected) and that the poison must have been administered by the accused person, then the conviction can be rested on it".

Interestingly, Justice A K Sarkar dissented holding that the circumstances were not sufficient to establish the guilt of the accused. Justice Sarkar agreed that the conduct of Lagu was not inspiring confidence and it pointed towards some dishonest motive in his mind. However, that was not sufficient to establish murder of Karve, said Justice Sarkar.

"But supposing the appellant had during Laxmibai's lifetime cast a covetous eye on her properties, would that be enough to justify a finding that her death had been an unnatural death ? I do not think it would. The design may provide a motive for murder; but the murder, that is, in this case an unnatural death, cannot be proved by it. That design does not exclude the possibility that Laxmibai died a natural death and the appellant made full use of the opportunity thereby provided to carry his design into effect", Justice Sarkar said.

This judgment shows how conviction in a murder can be secured only on the basis of circumstantial evidence. As observed in the judgment, murder, though it may not have a tongue, speaks out sometimes through circumstances.

"Witnesses may lie, but not the circumstances"

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