The Pottal Murder Case
I have already mentioned earlier the infamous Pottal murder case that I fought in the Nagercoil Sessions Court some time after I had registered at the Travancore High Court. There were six persons accused in that case. The first accused was a major landlord and the father of a police inspector, Thankaswami Nadar. The rest were his dependents.
The case was that the first accused planned and instigated the rest of the accused persons to gather against the law and attacked and murdered two young men against who the first accused harbored serious ill-will, luring them to a secluded place, tied them up on two neem trees and beat them inch by inch to death. It was a highly controversial case. I was very reluctant to take it up, being less experienced and younger. I was approached when the Sessions Court denied the accused bail. If I had a say, I would have wriggled out with some excuse.
Mr Chandy worked in a police station near Thiruvananthapuram those days. When he came home, I told him about my misgivings about taking up the defense in this case. If I fail in this, that will affect my future — that was my argument.
“My idiot! If you let this go, will you get another chance like this one? And if you win, your future is secured, right? And you’ll of course get paid handsomely. You can get lots of saris and jewelry!” That was his opinion. My teacher at the Law College and later the Principal there, Sri E Subrahmania Iyer represented the first accused.
When Mr Chandy remarked that if the accused are convicted then the chief responsibility for that will be Sri Subramania Iyer’s and if we win, the papers will all carry major headlines that the accused were all acquitted and that Mr Subramania Iyer and Anna Chandy appeared for them, I became enthusiastic.
I accepted the vakkalath; went to Sri Subrahmania Iyer and studied the case well. I identified the weaknesses of the prosecution. When I examined the case records, I saw that though the deed was done by two or three people, to make it stronger, the crime was portrayed as one of illegal assembly too, attracting charges according to IPC Section 149, so that even if no one of the accused was found guilty, the responsibility of the crime was placed on not just those against who there was evidence but also against others too. I also saw that the claim that the dead people were led out of their residences and taken to a place so far away at the dead of night was unbelievable. The witnesses who provided statements lived very far off and the reasons they gave for being there at that time seemed rather imaginary. And even if they were indeed present, it would have been impossible for them to see anything in the pitch-black darkness in the neem-grove. I also visited the site of the alleged crime and took a look at the need trees too.
On the day of the hearing, I appeared at the Nagercoil court walking in the shade of the much-experienced and well-known lawyer Sri Subramania Iyer. People thronged the court and its premises. They had gathered there to catch a glance of the accused in the Pottal case and to hear the examination. And also, see a rare curiosity, a woman lawyer.
The clock in the court struck eleven. The Sessions Judge Sri Sankara Pillai occuped the Bench with great gravity. The seriousness of his face shook not just the accused but also a new lawyer, me. I had not encountered such a serious expression anywhere, in the Kottayam Sessions Court or Thiruvananthapuram High Court. I saw here an expression of gravity that far exceeded what I was used to as a junior lawyer and a woman, in the other courts. I was not free from the suspicion that this was a protest against a woman lawyer who had appeared here from another court, to save the accused in an extremely controversial, sensational case. Later, I inquired about this and it turned out that he always bore this expression when hearing murder cases.
Sri Subramania Iyer had already entrusted with the job of cross-examining the witnesses. I was prepared. My venerable teacher, my husband, had equipped me with expert advice and suggestions.
The government pleader presented a summary of the plaintiffs’ case before the court. Then the charge sheet prepared in court was read out. Each of the accused stated that they refused the charges. Then the witnesses on the plaintiffs’ side were cross-examined. After the chief examination, the lawyer representing the first accused did a cross-examination on some crucial issues. He then left the rest to me. I cross-examined all of them, especially the eye-witnesses, in detail. There were some objections from the government side about the appropriateness of some questions. Besides, when some questions favourable to the plaintiffs’ side were asked by the Court to the witnesses and certain such remarks were passed, I got a sense of where the verdict was headed. My enthusiasm in cross-examination waned. But in such moments of weakness , I remembered my husband’s advice and I continued the examination of the witnesses with renewed fervour. I was able to bring out all the weaknesses of the case through cross-examining the immediate witnesses and the investigating officers.
The hearing was over in two weeks. We conducted the defense quite well. By now the younger lawyers were saying, that female lawyer was smashing in the way she tore apart the case. But the oldsters there who knew the judge’s mindset better were not of that view. These tricks won’t work here, they said. The Judge is going to make them all hang by the noose, they were sure. Anyway, their prediction did not come exactly true. The verdict was to hang to death the first and second accused and life imprisonment for the rest of them.
Though the verdict was adverse to me, the remarks about the defense were somewhat comforting.
Reading a copy of the verdict, Mr Chandy said it will surely fall apart in the High Court. We convinced the son of the first accused, Thankaswamy Nadar of this. Though the decision was to hire the Emperor of criminal lawyers, Mallooor Govinda Pillai in the appeal, finally they decided that Sri Subramania Iyer will represent the first accused and I, the others.
Because the verdict was death by hanging, the trial began in the High Court without much delay. I studied the case giving up food and sleep. This case would determine my future as a lawyer. Mr Chandy prepared a note that searched out each and every weakness in the plaintiffs’ case. The appeal was heard by the Bench composed of Chief Justice Mr Chatfield and Justice Mr K K Chacko.
The papers gave a lot of publicity to the Pottal case appeal at the High Court and about the lawyers. There was a huge crowd assembled, consisting of lawyers, the two sides and the general public.
Sri Subramania Iyer presented the objections to the verdict and the general weaknesses of the case and the special arguments on behalf of the first accused in a day. I took the defense forward from then. I presented the reasons for disbelieving the witnesses and especially the way in which the police sought to charge innocent people in a deed done by two or three in order to strengthen their case, and convinced the court that the responses of the lower court to such weaknesses were not acceptable.
With the pluck of youth, I argued passionately that even if one or two of the accused were involved in this gruesome crime, it would be injustice to condemn innocents who were merely added to strengthen the case and under the statements of false witnesses, to severe punishments: “Even if a hundred guilty men escape, one innocent man should not be punished. Let justice be done even though the Heavens fall.” I rested my case thus.
My voice faltered and throat grew sore because of the continuous argumentation in court for a whole week but there were people who claimed that it was an act by a woman to dupe the court.
When I finished, the Chief Justice said, “Thank you, Mrs Chandy, you have done well.” My respected teacher, Subrahmania Iyer too commended me; it was after that I forgot the stress that my body and mind bore and felt satisfied.
The government lawyer could not respond effectively to our arguments. Not only were they unable to defend against the weaknesses that undermined their case, they were also unable to answer satisfactorily the questions raised by the judges.
After the hearing was over, I fell ill and was bed-ridden for two weeks, with laryngitis and fever. My mother and some other old ladies discovered the reason for my illness — can you guess what that was? The evil eye cast by some who saw me arguing my case boldly in court.
Anyway, the appeal was conceded in the infamous Pottal case. The accused who were imprisoned in the Central Jail visited us as soon as they were released. I was bed-ridden so they came in to meet me with my mother’s permission. All of them except the first accused who was a senior man, fell at my feet in salutation. And expressed their unending gratitude and love.
I thanked God almighty who had rewarded my hard work. My husband too joined me in my happiness. My illness abated. I will not conceal the fact that before I went to court and accepted congratulations for my victory, I went to the church and made my vowed offerings.