Sheena Bora case: Software used by CBI to match skull raises eyebrows at trial

Sadaf Modak
Sheena Bora murder case, Sheena Bora, Sheena Bora Indrani Mukerjea, Inrani Mukerjea, Peter Mukerjea, Sheena Bora murder trial

The CBI is relying on this software, along with other forensic evidence, to claim in a Mumbai court that a skeleton recovered in Maharashtra’s Raigad district in 2015, belongs to Sheena Bora.

The website of FantaMorph states that it is an easy-to-use software for the creation of “fantastic photo morphing pictures and sophisticated morph animation effects”. There is a morphed image of a woman and a cheetah, and another of eight Hollywood stars, including Jennifer Lopez and Halle Berry.

The website claims that the software, available for use with a 30-day free trial or for US $30-$100 (Rs 2000-Rs 7000) for different versions, can be used to create screensavers, web graphics, music videos, movies, advertisements, even greeting cards. But it doesn’t claim anywhere that FantaMorph can be used as a forensic tool — for facial superimposition.

And yet, the CBI is relying on this software, along with other forensic evidence, to claim in a Mumbai court that a skeleton recovered in Maharashtra’s Raigad district in 2015, belongs to Sheena Bora. According to the prosecution, 25-year old Bora was murdered in 2012 allegedly by her mother Indrani Mukerjea and her former husband Sanjeev Khanna in what it claims was a conspiracy that also involved her then husband Peter Mukerjea.

With the software coming under the scanner during proceedings over four days last week in courtroom No. 51 of the special CBI court, where the high-profile murder trial is underway, the defence lawyer for Peter Mukerjea, Shrikant Shivade, has asserted that this is the first and last time that it will be used in any court in the country.

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FantaMorph used in screensavers, greeting cards

The CBI, however, has claimed that the software confirms that photographs of Bora matched photographs of the skull, and that they “belong to each other”. For the analysis, it relied on its witness Dr Sunil Kumar Tripathi, a 72-year old retired professor from the Institute of Medical Sciences in Banaras Hindu University.

Tripathi told the court that he had submitted analysis on facial superimposition in four previous cases, but had never used FantaMorph before. He said he was called upon by the CBI for this case in 2015, and that he used FantaMorph for the fist time in this trial after he took over four years to practice and perfect its use.

Listed as the 60th witness in the trial, Tripathi admitted that he had not come across anyone using FantaMorph for superimposition or read any journal on it. “I have not purchased the software after expiry of free trial of 30 days. After the free trial would end, I would load it in another computer, having done this 3-4 times,” he told the court.

Tripathi also told the court that he had attended a workshop in 2004 in Panjab University on “facial reconstruction from skull” organised by international expert Mehmet Yasar Iscan.

Shivade, who cross-examined Tripathi, referred to one of the books authored by Iscan, “Forensic Analysis of the Skull”, and said that the software does not find mention in it as a tool of expertise for superimposition.

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The defence also claimed that out of the four photographs of Bora used for the software, one has only 50 per cent of her face, covered with sunglasses and a fringe on her forehead and eyebrows, to which Tripathi said it was only 35 per cent.

While the website of FantaMorph has detailed information about the product, it provides a link to under contact details. The link was not accessible.

Experts told The Indian Express that in criminal investigations, police often rely on a combination of facial reconstruction and superimposition to find the identity of an unknown victim from a recovered skeleton. In this method, initially, negatives of photographs of the deceased victim, and a photograph of the skull, would be superimposed on each other to see if they match.

Other methods include reconstruction of the face after measuring the skull, forensic odontology and other forensic measures.

Dating back to the 19th century, facial superimposition and reconstruction through cranial remains is a debated topic in terms of legal admissibility, with many countries not allowing prosecuting agencies to rely completely on the technique without independent forensic evidence.

In India, there have been cases where facial superimposition was considered, including in the murder of a 22-year old New Zealand national Diana Routley, whose skeletal remains were found after over a year in Varanasi in 1998. Her identity was established through DNA evidence and the superimposition technique.

The defence lawyers in the Bora case have claimed during cross-examination that though advanced methods were available, they were deliberately not used and FantaMorph chosen to arrive at a “tampered” conclusion, using an expert “handpicked” to meet the CBI’s requirements.

Tripathi, however, has claimed that while his first choice of analysis was through negatives of photographs, he went ahead with the software since the CBI could not provide him with a darkroom.

During the trial, the use of FantaMorph became so contentious that when a cat entered the courtroom during one of the hearings, an exasperated Shivade claimed that the software would even show a match between the cat’s skull and the one recovered by the agency. “It can show a match between any personality in history, say Mona Lisa and anyone you want because it is only a morphing software,” he said.