Last week, an Indian man was sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife by having her bitten by a cobra. Soutik Biswas and Ashraf Padanna reconstruct the events that led to the grisly murder.
In April last year, 28-year-old Suraj Kumar paid 7,000 rupees ($ 92; £ 67) for a spectacled cobra, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. The snake trade is illegal in India, so Suraj made the clandestine purchase from a snake hunter, Suresh Kumar, in the southern state of Kerala.
Suraj made a hole in a plastic container to let air in, put the cobra inside and took it home.
Thirteen days later, he put the container in a bag and dragged himself to his in-laws’ house, about 44 km (27 miles) away, where his wife Uthra was recovering from a mysterious snake bite.
Suraj and Uthra had met two years earlier through the services of a marriage mediator. Suraj’s father was a rickshaw driver and his mother a housewife. Uthra, who was three years younger than Suraj and suffered from learning difficulties, came from a much more affluent family: her father was a rubber merchant and her mother was a retired principal.
When the couple married, Suraj accepted a dowry from Uthra’s parents of 768 grams of gold (worth about $ 32,000 at today’s rates), a Suzuki sedan, and 400,000 rupees in cash. She also received 8,000 rupees a month from her parents “to take care of her daughter,” investigators said.
It was her parents’ home that Uthra returned to after being discharged from the hospital. The snakebite had put her there for 52 days and required three painful surgeries to heal her affected leg.
She had been bitten by a Russell’s viper, a highly venomous earth-colored snake responsible for thousands of deaths in India every year.
Then on the night of May 6, investigators say, while Uthra was still recovering, she accepted a glass of Suraj’s fruit juice that was laced with sedatives. When the mixture was placed underneath, Suraj took out the container with the Cobra, turned it over and dropped the five-foot-long snake onto his sleeping wife.
But instead of attacking her, the snake crawled away. Suraj picked it up and threw it at Uthra, but again it slipped away.
Suraj tried a third time: he held the reptile by the characteristic hood and pressed his head close to Uthra’s left arm. The agitated cobra, using its fangs in the front of its mouth, bit her twice. Then it slipped onto a shelf in the room and stayed there all night.
“Cobras don’t bite unless you provoke them, Suraj had to grab him by the hood and force him to bite his wife,” says Mavish Kumar, a herpetologist.
Suraj washed the glass of juice, destroyed a stick he had used to safely handle the snake, and erased the incriminating call logs on his cell phone, according to investigators.
When Uthra’s mother entered the room the next morning, she told police she saw her daughter lying on the bed with “her mouth open and her left hand dangling to one side.”
He said Suraj was in the room too.
“Why didn’t you check if she was awake?” Manimekhala Vijayan asked his son-in-law.
“I didn’t want to disturb her in her sleep,” Suraj told her.
The family took Uthra to the hospital, where doctors pronounced her dead of poisoning and called the police.
The autopsy report found two pairs of puncture wounds, less than an inch apart, on the left forearm. Blood and viscera samples revealed the presence of cobra venom and sedative drugs. Cobra venom can kill within hours by paralyzing the respiratory muscles.
Acting on a complaint from Uthra’s parents, police arrested Suraj on May 24 in connection with his wife’s unusual death. After a 78-day investigation and over 1,000-page allegations, the trial began.
More than 90 people testified, including herpetologists and doctors. The prosecution constructed his case using Suraj’s call logs, internet history, a dead cobra exhumed from the back garden, a stash of sedatives in the family car, and evidence that he bought not one but two snakes. . Investigators said Suraj had also purchased Russell’s viper which had bitten Uthra months before she died.
Suresh, the snake hunter, turned to Suraj and confessed to selling him both snakes. A herpetologist told the court that it was highly unlikely that a cobra would enter the couple’s bedroom through a raised window. The crime scene was even recreated, using a live cobra, a snake trainer, and a victim’s mannequin on a bed.
“Cobras are not very active at night. Whenever we dropped a cobra onto the supine mannequin, it would slide across the floor and enter a dark corner of the room,” said Mavish Kumar. “Even when we teased the cobra, it didn’t try to bite.”
He then grabbed a cobra’s neck and “induced” the bite on a piece of chicken tied to the mannequin’s plastic hand. The distance between the bites was the same as Uthra’s arm.
“This is a diabolical and horrific case of murder,” said Judge M Manoj, referring to the murder of a wife. Judge Manoj sentenced Suraj to life in prison, saying he had plotted to kill Uthra and “disguise him as death from an accidental cobra bite.”
According to investigators, the fatal cobra bite was Suraj’s third, not second, attempt to kill his wife in just four months.
Suraj, who worked as a collection agent for a local bank, met snake hunter Suresh in February last year and bought Russell’s viper from him for Rs 10,000. He took the snake home in a plastic container and hid it under a pile of firewood in a shed.
Then, on February 27, Suraj released the snake on the first floor landing of his home, investigators said, and asked his wife to go upstairs to get his cell phone.
Uthra saw the coiled viper on the marble floor and sounded an alarm, her mother told police. Suraj approached, took the snake with a stick and left the house. He put it back in the container.
On the night of March 2, Suraj tried again. He laced his wife’s pudding with sedatives and released the viper into the bedroom while she slept.
This time, investigators said, the snake attacked. Uthra woke up screaming in pain, biting her leg and Suraj threw the snake out the window.
“Snakebite cases are common in Kerala, so we didn’t suspect any foul play here,” said Vijayasenan Vidhyadharan, Uthra’s father. (Approximately 60,000 people die from snake bites each year in India.)
That night it took more than two hours to find a hospital that provided intensive care. Uthra suffered from swelling and bleeding. After three skin transplant surgeries, she returned home to her parents’ two-story house in a leafy village in Kollam to rest.
Suraj stayed with his son and parents in his home in Pathanamthitta. But he was already plotting again.
“While his wife was in the hospital, Suraj was surfing the Internet about snake management and knowledge of snake venom,” said Anoop Krishna, one of the investigators.
Investigators say Suraj has been planning the killing since the birth of his son, Dhruv, in 2019. His internet history revealed that he searched for venomous snakes and watched snake videos on YouTube, including a channel from a well-known network manager. snakes locally. One of the most popular videos of the snake handler is about the “dangerous and aggressive Russell’s viper”.
Suraj reportedly told his friends that his wife was “haunted by a snake’s curse” in her dreams, in which she was “destined to die from a snake bite.”
In fact, Suraj was determined to kill his wife, steal her money and marry another woman, investigators said.
“He planned it meticulously and succeeded on the third attempt,” said Apukuttan Ashok, the chief police officer of the investigation. Prosecutor Mohanraj Gopalakrishnan called the case a “milestone in the police investigation in India, when prosecutors were able to prove conclusively that an animal was used as a murder weapon”.
Suraj received a rare double life sentence for the crime. According to Gopalakrishnan, he showed no remorse.
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