The sensational serial murder case involving Jolly Amma Joseph, the Kerala woman who allegedly killed six of her family members between 2002 and 2016, has shaken the state. What is especially alarming is the lacunae in the criminal justice system which apparently allowed the woman to get away with murder for 17 years.
The police normally investigate a case of death only if foul play is alleged or a complaint is filed by someone related to the victim. All the six murders allegedly carried out by Jolly didn’t evoke any suspicion in anyone and therefore the police never insisted on a post-mortem.
In the case of Jolly’s mother-in-law Annamma who died in 2002 and father-in-law Tom Thomas who died in 2008, the reason for death was attributed to cardiac arrest. In the six murders, post-mortem was conducted only on the body of Roy Thomas, former husband of 47-year-old Jolly. Though traces of poison were found in Roy, Jolly insisted he had taken his own life due to financial issues and the police closed the investigation. The deaths in the family continued with Annamma’s brother Mathew Manjadi dying in 2014.
KG Simon, Kozhikode Rural SP, who is the investigating officer, while addressing the media on Saturday said that Jolly was a brilliant woman, with the flaws in the system apparently helping her evade the police net all these years.
Another lacuna that seemed to work in Jolly’s favour is that hospitals are not obligated to report any suspicious deaths, unless the family raises a complaint. A senior IPS officer told TNM that hospitals cannot be held criminally liable for not raising suspicion. "If the family says they have no suspicion about the death, the hospitals normally issue death certificate and don't insist on medico-legal cases."
Retired forensic surgeon Dr Sherly Vasu says, “It’s the responsibility of the local people’s representative to intimate the police about a death as per the Panchayati Raj Act. A committee should be constituted as per the Act in the presence of whom the police should conduct the inquest. A hospital will issue a death certificate, if nothing untoward about the death is found prima facie. The responsibility is primarily with the ward member, which I don’t think is followed in Kerala,” Dr Sherly has conducted post-mortems in several sensational cases, including the murder of a young woman of Thrissur.
It is this lacunae that seems to have allowed the deaths of two-year-old Alphine and her mother Cily to go unnoticed. Cily was the wife of Tom Jose’s nephew Shaju and died under mysterious circumstances in 2016. She collapsed after drinking a glass of water at a dentist’s clinic. Cily had reportedly gone to the clinic with Shaju and Jolly. By the time they took her to a hospital in Omassery, she died. Two years before that, her two-year-old daughter died and was said to have choked.
In the Koodathayi serial killings, it was a complaint from Rojo, Roy’s brother, that prompted the police to investigate the deaths.
A retired Kerala IPS officer echoes the opinion that only if family members allege any foul play will the police will go ahead with a probe that also necessitates post-mortem.
“As per rules, a seven-member committee should be constituted for the inquest. If it is a woman who is dead, a woman ward member should also be part of the committee. But in this case, it seems no committee was formed,” the retired officer says.
The committee constituted for the inquest, Dr Sherly says, can have any adults without any criminal background as members, except doctors.
“The committee members should be powerful, those who have the guts to follow up on the case with the police. But unfortunately nothing in this direction is working in Kerala. The rule is also that the district collector should do a monthly scrutiny of deaths, like any deaths of children, and how death certificates were issued in those cases. Officials of local self-government departments like revenue divisional officers are also responsible for scrutinising such instances. As far as police go, they can even cite adverse weather or bad roads as per CRPC 174 for not conducting an inquest,” Dr Sherly adds.
Experts in the field also cite lapses in following the law, from preparations for the inquest to not conducting the post-mortem, which come in handy for the culprits, especially if she or he is a family member.
“There is a stigma around post-mortem, especially among people living in rural areas, they view it as an offensive thing. Also, it’s up to the family members to lodge a police complaint in the case of a suspicious death, but what if the murderer is a family member too,” Dr Sherly tells TNM.
Renju, Roy and Rojo’s sister, told the media on Sunday that whenever a death occurs in a family, a post-mortem should be a must and that the death should not be passed off as natural.
“What I want to tell everyone is not to hesitate to conduct a post-mortem when someone in your family dies. Post-mortem was not conducted on the bodies of my father and mother, so we had to make up for it by exhuming their bodies,” Renju said.
What were Jolly's alleged motives? Read here.