Tuesday, 26 January 2016

EXPERT WITNESS

EXPERT WITNESS

It was this sultry desolate evening that one gets used to in life in the hinterland. Nothing much to look forward to except a stream of people walking in at odd times  to get free consultation . Doing the day rota in a Tehsil or Taluk hospital in semi urban Kerala often meant this. People with Fever which was there since two days,did not report to the OPD for the excusable reason of a crowd, vague feelings of indigestion because of a heavy meal. Decently emergent one could argue. But in a small town you don't argue with your patients ,unless you want to be terribly unpopular or poor or both.
I had just had a decent meal from the only decent restaurant in town because the night rota guy was kind enough to relieve me for an hour. I was feeling sleepy and even the dull green bed of the duty room, which was essentially an old operation theatre , seemed inviting. It was then that the knock at the ageing door reminded me that my time was not at my disposal. I opened the door cursing no body in particular. Outside the room,the Nursing assistant on duty was holding a paper in his hand. Since I already noticed the khaki cap of the police officer standing respectfully behind him , I need not have guessed the content of the paper. It was a request from the Police for a post mortem examination . One of the things that I detested when I joined the Government Health service was this . With no experience in Forensic medicine one is supposed to do a post mortem examination . One learnt on the job and I had the good luck of being guided by a senior who in spite of being an internist was an expert in the field.
The prerogative of requesting a PM ,as it's called ,in a suspicious death ,lies with the investigating officer. In legal parlance ,the Station House Officer. Usually that means an officer not below the rank of Head Constable or Civil Police Officer as they are now called in Kerala. The curious thing about the request is the doctor cannot " refer" the case as it were. That liberty ends with the life of the patient. Even if the doctor believes that he should redirect the case to a specialist ,his hands are tied. Only the police can take the call. If after considering the request they vote for the same doctor ,he is bound to perform it.
It was my habit to ask more details of the case so that one does not miss crucial things . Since the district had a teaching hospital with a full complement of Forensic experts, we were generally requested to perform PM only in cases were the Police was pretty sure that it was an accident or suicide. In this case the the officer informed me that it was a case of suicide . I glanced across the request and noted the name.
Sandra Joseph it said,20 years .
I read it again .
 Surely not that Sandra. I asked about the whereabouts of the deceased. He confirmed what I had feared. It was indeed the Sandra Joseph.

Mind has this curious way of retaining memories. The first thing that I remembered about this girl was that she was wearing a high heel slipper when I first met her. It was sort of curious since I should have remembered that she was my best friend's girl friend. Wait ,not fully, since Prasad,that was my friends name,never accepted her love.

I signed and gave back the request and asked him to shift the body to the Autopsy room.
As I reluctantly prepared myself I also recollected the occasion of our first meeting.
Both of us were working in a moderate sized hospital in my home city. He had already worked there for an year while I was still in medical school. It was a breezy December morning and the morning rush was still a good hour away.

The cold stillness of the mortuary is matched only by the coldness of the lives of its occupants while they waited for the final violation of their bodies before the pyre or earth interred them.
In a mechanical but thorough manner I first identified the body by matching the marks ascribed to the deceased in the request. She was lying lifeless ,but still pretty. In death nudity takes on a certain vulgarity except for the depraved. But one had to admit that save for the ligature knot and some facial flushing she still looked full of life.

The breezy December morning that I met her ,she was wearing a pink salwar with silky white leggings. She had a decent face highlighted by big eyes and a constant smile. But for some reason that morning,Prasad was irritated with her. I found out the reason soon enough. She wanted to gift him an expensive watch. He would have none of it. Reason was quite simple. They understood their relationship differently. Prasad was pretty convinced she wanted him to marry her. He did not want that. Sandra always maintained he was just a friend .

The Nursing attendants working in the non teaching hospitals do half the job of a PM in most cases. The doctors mainly make observations. I carefully noted that the ligature knot did not fully envelop the neck. In cases of homicidal strangulation,the  mark will  extend fully around the neck. Also,in this case ,as in many others, one could make out the knot mark on the skin of the neck just above where the ligature marks ended.

Sandra was pleading with him to accept the gift.  Desperate for some support he turned to me.
" Renjith, you tell me, can I accept such an expensive gift? "
The question was rhetorical but I was in a naughty mood.
" Why not ? " was my reply ,much to his embarrassment.

The nursing assistant had begun to cut open the neck and then the body. One had to note the congestion of the blood vessels beneath the knot. Also the contents of the stomach ,condition of internal organs ,everything needed to be noted down.

" I know he's not ready to marry me. I am willing to admit I love him,Dr.Renjith" Sandra was saying. " But can't he accept a friendly gift ?"
I gave a sympathetic nod and winked at my friend. He swore and then smiled. " I am your doctor Sandra" he said without much conviction .
Strangely enough Sandra always called him doctor. Sandra smiled that bewitching smile of hers "You  were my doctor" ,she mocked .

Samples having been taken from the viscera ,the assistant was closing the body now. Next he would break open the skull, a macabre procedure since smaller hospitals did not have proper equipments.A shudder passed through me as I again touched her lifeless body and inspected it for any other injury not noticed earlier.

She had touched my hand that day pleading for Prasad's acceptance of her gift. I had felt embarrassed since she was such a pretty girl but she took away her hand swiftly to return to her vocal tantrums.

The final acts over, I nodded to the assistant and left the room. Waiting outside I could make out that her relatives were waiting. Surely not her parents, they were probably too shocked to accompany her .

Sandra had left the Rolex on the Casualty desk. She was cool and collected as she walked out. We had to later retrieve the watch and courier it back to her. Prasad was right. He was her doctor.It all started off as an emergency call to see a woman suffering from abdominal pain. I was not with him at that point. Prasad then noticed that she was coming for review once too often ,on flimsy grounds. This is not unusual since girls of that age sometimes take fancy to young doctors or teachers. What was unusual was that she then pursued him for two years and it was at that point that I first met her in that casualty ,Rolex in hand.

I sat down to write the report. Usual case of suicide by hanging . There was one extra element. The deceased was pregnant. Probably twelve weeks. Male foetus. I signed off and filed the PM report. The report ended with the usual clause. Final report pending till viscera reports are in. Daily stuff. No body even sent the viscera anywhere. In those cases when courts requested ,it was rumoured that any viscera would be sent, not necessarily of the same deceased,but I had no personal experience of that sort.
Sandra pursued Prasad in the wards ,occasionally even in the theatre,operation theatre that is. She would disappear for weeks quoting some exam or the other. Then call him again. Those were the days before cell phones. One had to second guess using ESP to avoid an unwanted call. I had often asked Prasad why he did not reciprocate her feelings. She was pretty,educated and seemed a good match. Was it religion ? I mocked him because he was a proclaimed atheist." Non sense" he would scream. " go and marry her" ,he would tell me. Not that I would have minded. She wasn't probably interested. I was convinced she was obsessed with Prasad.

*****************************************************************************

The usual course for a suicide case is for the police to " refer " it. This jargon simply said  that the case was closed due to lack of evidence as to performance of any criminal act. Which automatically meant I was saved the trip to the court to give evidence.
It was therefore surprising to  me that after about six months I received a summons to appear as Expert Witness in a case which was identified only by a crime number. I gathered from my friends in the force that this was the Sandra suicide case.
Sandra 's parents had  filed a private complaint of abetment of suicide against my friend Dr Prasad who worked now in another private hospital. They were convinced that after abusing her love he had abandoned her and led to her death.
If this was unusual enough,the next morning I got a tip off from my lawyer friends that I was also being summoned as PW, or ordinary witness by the Special prosecutor in the case.Now this is a highly problematic area. As EW,or expert witness, I should testify as to the cause of death and the fact of her illegitimate pregnancy. As PW I had to testify regarding their relationship . An EW can give an opinion as to the cause of death or in other cases the nature of presented evidences. An ordinary witness cannot give any opinion . He just states facts. It's funny how in some movies ordinary witnesses say " I think he has a violent predisposition "and so on. Any self respecting judge would disregard those statements . I was a little confused here. I could find no precedence of a person being EW and PW at the same time. Was it even legal ?

The senior judge who was in Session at the District court that  wretched morning was the Honourable  Judge Sasidharan  Nair. Aged around fifty ,he had a reputation for being stern but luckily he was also known for treating doctors with kindness.The treatment of doctors in trials is usually respectful . They are given preference in deposing and treated with dignity by both sides . This is also because the evidence is crucial and no one wants to rub him or her the wrong way. But in this case I am also a personal witness and could not expect any such mercy. I was summoned by the prosecution despite knowing our friendship. It would be impossible for me to deny their romantic liaison,given the fact that she never kept her visits secret. My lawyer friends pointed out that the prosecution was not looking for a murder conviction. It was just abetment of suicide. The bar of evidence was not that high.
The trial began ordinarily. As the EW ,I read from my post mortem report. That was procedure. I could see Prasad ,his face down ,with unfathomable  feelings. His lawyer was the redoubtable Bhanuchandra Menon,simply the best lawyer money could buy,at least in our town. The prosecution was brief in its Examination in chief. This is the first examination of a witness. Here the prosecution cannot ask leading questions. For instance ,one cannot ask the witness " Did you see Mr X stabbing Mr Y? ". You can only ask " What did you see that night ? ". In legal parlance any question that expects a yes or no answer is a leading question and is disallowed in the examination in chief. The defence lawyer has no such restrictions. He can ask leading or as is common ,even misleading questions. The prosecutor gets his chance in what is called the redirect,a chance to question the witness after the defence is done with him.
Bhanuchandra Menon was friendly, he's an acquaintance of mine. He dug around the PM report. The usual rigmarole to establish that the death was by suicide. He then entered into the area regrading sexual relations. I was wondering why the prosecution had just barely touched it.
" Doctor, was there any sign of sexual activity at all? " Menon was asking.
There was a wry smile on the judges face. The girl was pregnant, for heavens sake,his face said.
" Yes your honour" I replied. "The hymen was ruptured. "
Normally one would then expect a barrage of questions on how else hymen can rupture,but here it was superfluous.
The defence was driving at something else.
" Any sign of forced entry or abuse ? " Menon asked.
" No" I replied matter of factly.
"So it's correct to assume that whatever sexual activity that happened was consensual ?" . He was neither admitting his client had sex nor that he even knew her,it was just a factual question. I had to be careful with this one. One cannot assume consent from lack of force,I replied. She could have been drugged. The prosecutor was visibly happy with that answer.
" She was not raped by anyone,right? " it was a trapping leading question from Menon.
" One cannot assume that considering that it's also rape to have sex after drugging "I repeated.
It was a legal point,but I was an expert witness. The defence was unhappy with the answer. He said one cannot answer questions that were not asked. The judge shrugged his shoulders.
 " You asked the question" he said . The message was clear.

The defence then went on about other details of injury marks,old wounds and so on. I thought it was a waste of time since she was twelve weeks pregnant when she died. Menon was simply driving at the point that there was no evidence for any element of force in whatever relation she had. That was anyway not the prosecutions argument. I knew that the punches would come when I deposed as personal witness.
I could see that there was a frown in Prasad's face. I could not help it. Days back he had approached me with the request that I tone down my testimony about their relationship. I was non committal . Surely there were other witnesses. I could not be held for perjury.
The Prosecutors redirect was more detailed than usual.
He established firmly that the deceased was pregnant. The viscera examination ,report of which was available showed no other cause of death. There was no wedding ring, no other injury . The role of an expert witness was limited in this case. It was open and shut a suicide. The circumstances of the act was known only to Renjith ,the personal witness. He was not allowed any opinion on that. The prosecution then turned to other witnesses including the parents,the policemen,the hospital worker who had testified to her frequent visits. Her parents were apparently unaware of her obsession with Prasad till her death.
I was a little disturbed by this revelation. Could that be true ? Love can't be kept secret . One can read love from the others eyes . Were her parents that blind? Then I suddenly remembered that her parents lived in a different city and she was alone in our city.
They chanced upon some letters written by her to him and never posted. The letters were submitted as Exhibits. The defence lawyer was merciless even with the grief stricken parents.
" Apart from these letters is there any evidence with you to show that your daughter and my client had a romantic liaison ? "
The father answered with his silence. He was a forlorn man of about sixty. Sandra was his only offspring. Tragedy hang about him like an oversized dress.
The defence established that the letters were never posted and there were no letters from Dr Prasad to Sandra. It was a crucial point. No evidence of a two way true blue romance. The hospital worker had seen both of them together in cafeteria and the casualty. He had not overheard what they talked. The prosecution could not establish they had gone out anywhere together.
" Is it not strange that your daughter and my client never went out together and the only place they met was the hospital ? " Menon was asking. He was not expecting any reply. He stated matter of factly that his client was where he could be legitimately,at his place of work. The deceased had come to meet him. May be as a patient or as an acquaintance. Surely one had better places to go than the hospital if one were romantically inclined.
I was next called to the stand,this time as a personal witness. Ten minutes into the testimony I suddenly realised that I was the prosecutions star witness. No wonder he treated me as an EW with kid gloves. The special prosecutor in the case was Sridhar Das. At forty he was an energetic lawyer. His appointment had come after a lot of pressure by Sandra's parents.
I testified that I knew Prasad from my med school. He was one year my senior. I worked with him for almost six months at the hospital in question.
" Dr Renjith," Adv. Sridhar was asking" How do you know the deceased?"
It was jarring how she was always referred to as the deceased and not by name.
Prasad had told me about Sandra before I met her. He had described how she pursued her after their first,thoroughly professional encounter. How she round talk for hours over the phone. How he told her to treat him only as a friend. And then he suddenly asked the most unexpected question.
" Was or is Dr Prasad an atheist ? ". The defence lawyer sprang to his feet. Irrelevant ,he growled. Objection.
Judge stared quizzically at the Prosecutor.
" It's relevant your honour", Sridhar demurred" I want to establish something "
" Overruled" the Judge told Menon" but Mr Prosecutor, no moralising here"
" He is ,to my knowledge "  I replied truthfully.
" Did he read any philosophy ? " what a thought ! I wondered . Menon was completely flummoxed. I said I was not sure.
" Did he ever discuss philosophy or ethics of sex ,Osho for instance "
Oh my God,what was he driving at ? I said yes. He did mention Osho as a practical person.
"Was he a follower ? " the prosecutor asked
" Objection," Menon was violent this time " irrelevant,immaterial,and scurrilous "
The judge pondered a little and advised Sridhar.
" Come to the bloody point " . The expletive was almost whispered but clear.
" Your honour,the accused was an Osho fan . He has on occasion declared that it was okay to have sex with a friend without any commitment. The witness has testified how he wanted the deceased to treat him,as a friend. I think it clears up the case "
The reasoning seemed muddled to me. But the Judge was confused now. Neither side had called the accused to the stand till now. May be a deliberate strategy.

We were sitting inside the doctors room in the Operation theatre. All of us were dressed in the green OT scrubs. There were at least two other junior doctors whose names are now hazy. Prasad was in full flow. He was dwelling on Osho,free sex ,what not. " Can a man and woman be just friends ?" He was asking. Somebody said it might slip into sexual relations later. " So does that make them anything more than friends ? " Prasad was emphatic " No!, According to Osho " He winked " and me". There was a huge guffaw of the type you hear in men only gatherings. The depraved rumblings of the sexually deprived.


Out of the blue the defence made a strident demand.

" The DNA test of the foetus needs to be done"   He demanded. The procedure had then just come to the country. Available only at CCMB,Hyderabad. It was clear that Prasad was taken aback by the demand. He was gesturing wildly to his lawyer. But once he gets into the mood Menon was difficult to distract.
The prosecution readily agreed. It would take weeks if not months. Since I had preserved the foetal tissue it wasn't difficult to perform the test. After a few hectic confabulations, it was agreed upon and the court was adjourned.

By evening I received a terse call from my friend. He was upset I had not helped him in any way . I explained that it was not possible to lie . There were other witnesses. And I had only reported truthfully. I had not mentioned they were in love. Far from it. Then I asked reluctantly why he had agreed to the DNA test. He was furious. He said that his lawyer did not consult him. Now the damage was done. He could not refuse without the needle of suspicion pointing at him. Then I asked the question uppermost in my mind
" Did you actually have sex with her? "
He was silent for a long time and then replied.
" Yes buddy. Once,but..."

" Goddamnit Prasad," I shouted" it might be your child. You are screwed,well literally"
" No" he cried " it was more than six months before she died." in fact she was in her safe period"
" Oh my God, Prasad,are you even a doctor ? How can you be so sure ?" I was hysterical.
" It was her birthday,dammit " Prasad said " I regret having read those fancy theories . It was in May. She died in December. And you said she was four months pregnant. So she cannot be bearing my child. "
I made some feverish calculations and said it could be right. But I lost all confidence in him. I kept the phone down. It all depended on the blood test result now. The tissue of the foetus was being matched with Prasad's tissue. The test was near cent percent accurate,unless you had an identical twin ,that is.









It was sunny April when the result came. It was delivered in a sealed cover to the court. Judge Sasidharan Nair opened it in the presence of both lawyers and the accused. I was told of the proceedings by Prasad in an excited tone immediately after in a rushed phone call.Apparently the judge read from the report silently and simply  said
" It is not a match. Case dismissed ". I was dozing off from a particularly heavy night shift at the hospital .The Rolex told the time as Two PM.

Well I knew it would not be a match. Because they did not test my blood. Dammit,if only she had not come to me that rainy day in October wearing that damned knee length red skirt pleading with me to convince Prasad. The same dress she wore when she pleaded with me to be the father to her ,no ,our child. The same dress that she wore when she was brought to me as a case for autopsy...

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