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Sheena Bora Trial: Where did Sheena's brain vanish?

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
June 27, 2019 12:02 IST

Shivade: "You didn't find any brain inside the brain cavity?"
Dr Thakur nodded.
The judge shocked: "Huh?!"
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from the Sheena Bora murder trial.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

There were, by an interesting coincidence, two doctors in court on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 at the Sheena Bora murder trial.

Dr Thakur.

And Dr Shivade.

Dr Sanjay Atmaram Thakur, 46, who schooled in Pen, Raigad, had gained his MBBS degree from the Dr D Y Patil Medical College, Kolhapur.

Lawyer Shrikant Shivade, who came to court armed with a few heavy medical textbooks, including a big fat, red-and-blue tome called Modi's Textbook of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology, on the other hand, looked like he had just finished swotting non-stop and become a doctor overnight.

Shivade's recently acquired medical knowledge gave Dr Thakur a run for his money, especially in the forensic sphere, and the hearing on Wednesday was all about a Face Off Between Unequals.

Not exactly, as Dr Thakur quite early on threw his hat in the ring and bowed to Shivade's superior knowledge of medical facts when it came to post mortems, mostly agreeing with the lawyer, at every turn.

Dr Thakur had come on Wednesday to the witness box in CBI Special Courtroom 51 to testify as Prosecution Witness 52.

 

Seven years ago, he was the doctor, then working as a medical officer at the Primary Health Centre, Kamarli, near Pen, who had been called by the police on May 23, 2012 to conduct an immediate post mortem on the skeleton/corpse accidentally discovered by police patil Ganesh Dhene near the village of Gagode Khurd in Raigad district, that was later said to be the half burnt body of Sheena Bora.

Dr Thakur had no additional forensic degrees or, it would seem, experience, though he had been conducting post mortems, no doubt off and on, through his 14 years working in the area.

It was more like he happened to be the man, handily, in the right place at the right time and so he had been called. And being a most likely a busy village doctor, catering to a wide range of needs, he was a jack of all trades.

During his 'examination in chief' the doctor told the court, speaking in Marathi all through, that he had been informed on May 23, 2012 by the police about a "half-burnt human skeleton" that needed a post mortem.

"I immediately proceeded to Kamarli. I collected my instruments and a jar to remove the parts as well as preserve them."

From there he headed to Gagode Khurd where he was met by the Varsai chowki (the closest police outpost) police personnel, Havaldar Sanjay Magar and Nayak Vinod Ramchandra Bhagat and they handed over the skeleton into, as he termed it in Marathi "my custody."

Dr Thakur began the post mortem right there in the open under the tall mango trees on a probably blistering day in May, a few feet from the main road.

One can only imagine what a daunting task it must have been.

The smell. The heat. The flies. And a semi-decomposed corpse.

But Dr Thakur only offered to the room, in Marathi, a short almost pallid summary of his assignment that day: "The skeleton was decomposed. Half burnt. I removed hair, some skin from the left hand. I kept the bone (sample) and teeth in one jar. And skin and hair in another jar."

"Thereafter, I sealed the jars and told the police what I had done. I issued an advanced death certificate. I handed over the body to police Bhagat."

Ever since Ejaz Khan took over as CBI Special Prosecutor and helmsman in this case, there has been a change in the manner in which testimonies are conducted at CBI Special Judge Jayendra Chandrasen Jagdale's Courtroom 51 at the Mumbai city civil and sessions court, south Mumbai.

Khan makes sure the 'chiefs' are taut and crisp, and they don’t usually last more than ten minutes. It is another way in which he has speeded up the hearings, apart from scheduling them back to back, whenever possible.

Dr Thakur spoke for a few more minutes. He said by 6 pm on May 23 he was back at his hospital after finishing up a few more formalities like writing out a letter to the Pen police station and getting a receipt for the jar samples.

The Pen doctor, who was a very young-looking 46, was a quiet, soft-spoken man, with a simple, humble demeanour. He wore a blue and white checked shirt, black jeans, sandals, a snazzy belt and rimless glasses. He had a trim brush cut-kind of moustache and a full head of thick hair.

The next time he heard from the police, in relation to this skeleton, was three years later in 2015 on August 28, when he received a call from Pen police, asking him to meet them at that very spot.

A Khar police team, from north west Mumbai, who were then handling the probe into Sheena Bora's death was also visiting the spot. Dr Thakur went across and showed them where he had conducted his post mortem of the corpse.

Some days later he had to give a statement to the CBI; Dr Thakur could not remember the exact date.

Dr Thakur's cross-examination began with Peter Mukerjea's lawyer Shivade starting the proceedings.

Indrani Mukerjea's lawyer Sudeep Ratnamberdutt Pasbola had not yet arrived.

The advocate first asked the doctor how many post-mortems he had conducted on skeletons in the Pen area.

Dr Thakur said eight or nine.

Shivade checked: "It is mandatory to do a DNA test for an unidentified body?"

Dr Thakur nodded his head in agreement.

Shivade reserved the next 15 minutes to confirming with Dr Thakur that there was a rigid protocol that had to be adhered in order to get legitimate DNA test results and that had a lot to do with the manner in which body parts are collected at a post mortem and placed in jars of formaldehyde and sealed. The doctor didn't disagree.

A heavy-duty, high-brow legal argument, lasting a full, heated ten minutes, broke out subsequently between Shivade and Khan about "introducing a non-existent fact".

The contours of the argument were rather intriguing. Sometimes one wishes one had a degree in law to be able to follow these exciting disputes.

Like how the result of the tussle was Shivade intriguingly telling the judge: "My experience has shown that no witnesses's statements are recorded. They are all manufactured in the police station!.." He later added: "I feel ashamed to say that."

Finally, Judge Jagdale, who had been essaying the role of a referee perfectly till then, blew his whistle and took charge: "Jara ek minute thamba! (Wait one minute!)

Turning to Dr Thakur, he put the question Shivade wanted, about why a critical portion was missing from the doctor's version to Khar police: "Whether you have stated to the Khar police station during the recording of your statement on August 28, 2015 that you collected jars from PHC (Pen) and took the bones, skin, teeth and hair (from the body) and put separately, into two containers, for preserving the same, and then handed them over to the police? Sangit la? (Did you say that?)"

Dr Thakur, who had till then been carefully watching the legal altercation in a silent, mildly detached, manner, as if he was playing cricket and they football and he had no interest in having a clue, shook his head and with that he laid the controversy to rest.

Shortly thereafter, instantly, Shrikant Shivade, LLB, metamorphosed into Shrikant Shivade, MBBS, swapping his well-cut black lawyer coat for an imaginary crisp, white, one.

Judge Jagdale was amused, but also both pleased and impressed with the lawyer's preparations and with large laugh, gesturing to the senior lawyer, commented to the room: "Medical science expert."

After minutely verifying with Dr Thakur about how finicky a procedure a post mortem was and how meticulously it had to executed, Shivade enquired about the corpse's brain.

Shivade: "One has to cut the skull to (examine) the brain?"

Dr Thakur nodded (for the 100th time).

Shivade: "You didn't find any brain inside the brain cavity?"

Dr Thakur nodded.

The judge shocked: "Huh?!"

All eyes in the room were on the lawyer/newly-minted lay-doctor.

Shivade referring to the post mortem report: "No brain matter. See the column."

Judge Jagdale to Dr Thakur, puzzled, "What have you written?"

After establishing there had been no fracture to the skull, Shivade then explained, Dr Thakur agreeing with him at every instance, that the brain had fully decomposed.

Hence it had had dried up (maybe because of the summer heat the body had been exposed to out in the open at Gagode Khurd), so the cranial cavity was empty. The corpse's other organs had dried up in a similar manner.

Dr Thakur corroborated with Shivade that when he looked at the body in May, seven years ago, it was "only a bony skeleton" containing "dried organs".

Shivade: "Without the viscera anything about the cause of the death can be (determined)?"

The doctor said it was not possible.

Shivade checked: "Whether it is mandatory for a doctor to mention if there was foul play or suspicious motives in his post mortem?"

Dr Thakur agreed. And he had not made any such entry.

The court broke for lunch. Indrani, looking rather attractive in a sleeveless blue top with embroidery on its pin-tucked front, matched with white pants, and Sanjeev, retired to the corridors outside.

Indrani once again was consulting Wahab Khan on some new matter.

Meanwhile, just before the lunch break ended, one of Indrani's lawyers and Gunjan Mangla's assistants Siya Chaudhary came into the courtroom to put in a written request for Indrani to eat a sandwich.

Judge Jagdale looked at the request and grew irritated. He asked the lawyer what kind of request it was and called for Indrani.

"Vegetable sandwich," the judge muttered and something about young lawyers.

Indrani hurried in and took the witness box, her eyes dilated in her face. The judge asked her why she was asking for permission to eat a vegetable sandwich.

At first, not understanding Judge Jagdale's objection, she said she needed to eat frequent meals.

Judge Jagdale: "But you have had all these problems!", referring to the time she took sick after eating something, she claimed, in court.

Comprehension dawning, Indrani, looking somewhat pleased with the judge's concern, said something to the effect that: "If you don't want me to, I won't."

Judge Jagdale said he did not.

Sanjeev's lawyer Shreyansh Mithare came to the judge with a similar request.

The judge looking disgusted: "(He) wants to eat the same!"

After the lunch break, when the hearing resumed and Shivade re-started his 'cross', he had his copy of The Textbook of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology open in front of him and was referring to it in a scholarly manner. Several pages had been bookmarked with red post its or underlined.

He asked Dr Thakur if he was familiar with the textbook.

The doctor said he was not. Dr Thakur added gently: "In our time this book was not prescribed." But he could not remember which text they had used for this branch of medicine.

Shivade had a whole slew more of intricate questions, many for which the answer was in each complex question. And Dr Thakur had to merely concur.

Dr Thakur grew more and more quiet, and slightly dumbfounded, as he gradually realised the extent of Shivade's knowledge on post mortems, forensics, body decomposition, wherever it concerned this investigation.

One felt like going across to Dr Thakur and reassuring him that was he aware that Shivade was a lawyer and not a doctor and he was the only doctor in the room.

At one point, sensing Dr Thakur's perplexity, the judge calmed him saying something in Marathi approximately to the effect that Shivade is usually like that as he comes well prepared.

Dr Thakur, was, as a colleague correctly pointed out, only a rural primary health care centre doctor, belonging to that tribe that should be much revered for their continuing work in village areas, when many of their colleagues have migrated to cities, looking for better income. He was not a forensic pathologist or a medical examiner.

Shivade, who has long experience in the legal field and probably extensive understanding of the execution and findings of post mortems, had more exposure. The cross-examination was becoming gradually a case of a fly being hit with a sledgehammer.

The lawyer's onslaught of questions continued.

Was the skeleton intact and the skull attached to the seven neck (cervical) vertebrae?

How many vertebra did the neck have?

Was the thyroid cartilage intact? Or had it decomposed?

Answering tentatively, Dr Thakur said seven.

He said the cartilage had decomposed.

Next: "It is correct to say that in case of strangulation by hand the thyroid cartilage gets (damaged)? And that is the only evidence of strangulation? Barabar (right)?"

The doctor was of a similar opinion.

Shivade mentioned how when a body is burnt, especially by the intense heat of a petroleum product, it loses its skin, muscles, organs and bones in that order.

So Shivade put it to Dr Thakur: "In the said skeleton all the organs were decomposed and none of it was burnt?"

Dr Thakur agreed.

Shivade rattled on and Dr Thakur meekly agreed.

Attempting to get Shivade to slow down, the judge suggested they defer to Dr Thakur, "An expert witness."

Khan disagreed: "He is not an expert witness."/p>

Judge Jagdale: "He is an MBBS."

Khan said something to effect: "I could have also been an MBBS. I got 65 per cent and it closed at 67."

Shivade commented to Khan that missing admission obviously still rankled with the prosecutor and patted Khan on the arm, consolingly.

The lawyer brought up, in quick succession, the topic of autolysis, maggots, rigor mortis before moving to the topic of the ligaments of the skeleton.

He crucially authenticated with Dr Thakur the fact that if a body is burnt its ligaments (a form of muscle) would be destroyed and the skeleton could not be intact.

"If the ligaments are destroyed the said bony parts start separating?"

Dr Thakur did not deny that.

The lawyer's final questions to the doctor were about the absence of the age and sex on his post mortem report and the fact that he had not sent any dried organs for testing.

Dr Thakur said he had not written the age or sex because it was not possible to determine them from the skeleton. He also knew that without a viscera/organs report he could not give an opinion on how the death had occurred.

He could not offer any reason for the why in his report the columns where it said who had received the body, the name of the police station, and the date were blank.

Finally, Shivade asked him if he had minutely examined the bones during his post mortem.

He had and confirmed, "The skeleton for which I did the post mortem did not have any burn marks on the bones."

As Shivade concluded his cross-examination with a "Thank you doctor", Pasbola was meant to take over.

He had come into the room half an hour earlier, from a previous case, and was hurriedly scanning the medical textbooks, as if he was cramming for an exam.

He got up to request the judge for time till Thursday morning.

That request set off a monsoon storm inside the courtroom, even if beyond its windows there was no sign of the monsoon still.

The judge, his face furious, eyebrows standing out, demanded angrily to know why Pasbola needed extra time and why he was not prepared.

Pasbola, first angry too, and later reconciliatory, said Dr Thakur was an important witness and he needed a little more time to have his technical questions ready.

Judge Jagdale said it would be wrong on his part to not value the time of a doctor witness.

Dr Thakur, who said he had been coming to court continuously for two days, requested the judge and Pasbola to finish up on Wednesday.

And so the argument went back and forth.

It was finally agreed, though the judge said it was unfortunate, that Pasbola would begin his questions on Wednesday and conclude on Thursday.

More on Pasbola’s cross examination tomorrow.

VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL / Rediff.com
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