Quite by chance, the existence of a legal document that was a byproduct of the famous 1953 Sathasivam murder trial was brought to our attention. The find was serendipitous. We had been reading about the case and had gone through all the published letters and statements relating to the trial, but did not recall seeing [...]

Sunday Times 2

The Queen v. Sathasivam

Part 5: The Sathasivam story

Quite by chance, the existence of a legal document that was a byproduct of the famous 1953 Sathasivam murder trial was brought to our attention. The find was serendipitous.

We had been reading about the case and had gone through all the published letters and statements relating to the trial, but did not recall seeing a certain legal document bearing the Sathasivam name that has been familiar to every intake of local police officers and law students in the 63 years since the trial. The document, titled “The Queen v. Sathasivam M.”, came up during a casual conversation with the driver of a three-wheeler.
The driver was a chatty constable of the Cinnamon Gardens Police. Like so many people who cannot survive on their daytime job alone, Constable Prabath Kumara drove his vehicle for the extra rupees after the day’s police duties.

The Queen's Coronation on 2 June 1953: Forensic expert Sir Sydney Smith completed his evidence at the Sathasivam trial in Colombo before returning to England to attend the Coronation. Pic courtesy BBC

Following the flow of one-way traffic, we turned left at the Bauddhaloka-Duplication Road junction, drove on and turned right, into Joseph’s Lane, Bambalapitiya.

When you take this turning during the day, you have a clear view from Duplication Road of the top of Joseph’s Lane, the cars and trucks running on the Galle Road, and the houses at the upper end of the lane opposite. The seaside lane is St. Alban’s Place. If you look hard enough, you may see the roof of No. 7, the residence where Ananda Sathasivam, wife of the revered cricket ace Mahadeva Sathasivam, was murdered on 9 October 1951.

We thought that as a cop, Constable Kumara might be interested in the Sathasivam story, and so we suggested a little detour. It was late, there was little background traffic noise on the Galle Road, and the houses on St. Alban’s Place were in darkness. Driving past No. 7 was atmospheric. The cop driver was in fact familiar with the Sathasivam case, and he gave us information we were not aware of. It was then that we heard about the New Law Report titled “The Queen v. Sathasivam, M”, dated 24 March 1953.

Keen to get a copy of “The Queen v. Sathasivam, M”, we visited the Sri Lanka Bar Association office in Hulftsdorp the next day and obtained the number of a lawyer friend, a former Form 6 classmate and now a widely respected President’s Counsel. We called that night and the lawyer, Jaimini Weerasuriya (not his real name), confirmed that the Sathasivam Case was familiar to most lawyers and law students. He promised to give us a photocopy of the New Law Report No. 255.

Asked what NLR 255 was about, we were told that it pertained to the “admissibility” of documents submitted in a court trial. The document in question was the letter Ananda Sathasivam wrote to the Superintendent of Police on 17 September 1951, asking for police protection. In the letter, she said her husband Mahadeva Sathasivam, now in England, was due back in the country on 21 September 1951, and she was “apprehensive.” She had filed for divorce recently and consequently would not allow her husband to visit her, she wrote. Moreover, knowing her husband, she said that she feared “violence” at his hands.

Rejecting Ananda Sathasivam’s letter as a production at the trial, Justice Noel Gratiaen, the presiding judge, subsequently made a ruling on the admissibility and inadmissibility of documents brought to a trial. The document has since become a reference point for lawyers involved in litigation.

To any reader of “A Murder in Ceylon”, Prof. Ravindra Fernando’s comprehensive account of the Sathasivam case, the letter Ananda Sathasivam wrote to the Superintendent of Police would be considered a document of the utmost importance.
The letter makes it clear that Ananda Sathasivam feared her famous, hugely popular sportsman husband – feared him to the point of being prompted to write to the highest level of the Police to address her physical safety and that of her four young children. In so many words, she was declaring that as the wife, intimately familiar with all aspects of her husband’s character, she could say that there was a side to Mahadeva Sathasivam that was not pretty, that was potentially dangerous, and naturally she felt at risk – seriously at risk.

The defence, led by the formidably capable Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, had raised the “strongest objections” to any use of the letter at the trial. Of course, the defence would object: the letter was an attestation by Ananda Sathasivam that her husband Mahadeva Sathasivam could be a dangerous man.

On what ground was the letter rejected, we asked our friend Jaimini Weerasuriya, PC.

It was unfairly prejudicial to the interests of the accused, the President’s Counsel said.

But surely anything and everything the prosecution can find to support its case is inevitably “prejudicial” to the accused. How do you determine when something becomes “admissible” and “inadmissible”? What makes Ananda Sathasivam’s letter unacceptable? The murder victim was an anxious woman clearly expressing apprehension towards her spouse. “As a lawyer, do you accept the ruling that the letter was unacceptable?” we asked.

“Of course I do.”

“Would you explain to a lay person, in lay terms, what it is that makes the letter unacceptable? That letter, to anyone reading about the case, would seem a very important piece of evidence for the prosecution. How could it not have been used in the trial?”

“Listen – law and lay are two different things,” we were curtly informed. “It’s not the law’s problem if the lay person cannot understand the finer points of law, and how the law thinks and works.”

The conversation was getting tense, so we did not pursue the argument. We asked if we could have a copy of the 1953 New Law Report 255. This was delivered with professional promptitude the next day.

Before looking at Justice Gratiaen’s ruling, we have to look at the letter that led to the ruling.

Here, in full, is Ananda Sathasivam’s appeal for protection to the Superintendent of Police:

7 St. Alban’s Place,
17th September, 1951

C. C. Dissanayake, Esqr.,
Supdt. of Police, Colombo

“Dear Sir,

I am writing to you, as requested over the telephone, to inform you that I have filed an action, in the Colombo District Court asking for a divorce from my husband Mr. M. Sathasivam on the ground of desertion. He has been away in England and the summons though issued has not yet been served. He will be arriving in Colombo per ss. Himalaya on the 21st instant, and I understand from his attorney that he intends to come to this house (which is mine) with his mother and reside here. In view of the pending divorce action, this cannot be allowed, and I have been advised to refuse him admittance.

But, from my knowledge and experience of my husband, I have reason to fear that he may attempt to force his way into the house and use violence and cause a breach of the peace.

In this situation, I need protection and I therefore request that you will instruct the Bambalapitiya Police to afford me the same if I telephone to them. I have a telephone in the house and the Police Station is close by.

I may mention that I have my four young children in the house with me and I am also apprehensive on their account.
Yours faithfully,

Ananda Sathasivam”

Now let us look at “Present: Gratiaen J. The Queen v. M. Sathasivam, S.C. 1 Western Circuit – M. C. Colombo South.”
The 2,500-word document carries the following items of text:

“Statements made by a deceased person – Admissibility – Motive – Conduct – Evidence of trifling weight but gravely prejudicial to the accused – Propriety of excluding it.”

“The prosecution sought to produce as part of its case a letter which the deceased had, in anticipation of the accused’s return to Ceylon from abroad, written to a third party. The letter, however, amounted at best to mere general expressions indicating fear or suspicion of the accused and not directly related to the occasion of the death of the deceased.”

“Held, (1) that the letter was not admissible under section 32 (1) of the Evidence Ordinance.

“(ii) that the letter was not admissible to prove motive for the crime . . . unless, in the former case, there was independent evidence that the allegations in the letter had induced resentment in the accused’s mind against the deceased, and, in the latter case, there was independent evidence to support the suggestion that the deceased was apprehensive of danger to her safety after the accused had returned to Ceylon.

“Held further, that evidence of trifling weight, affecting an accused person, even though technically admissible, ought to be excluded if the potential prejudice which its reception it is almost certain to produce will be out of proportion to its true evidential value.”

The New Law Report 255 goes on to say:

“The defence has strongly objected to the reception of the letter P24 [Ananda Sathasivam's letter to the Superintendent of Police] or of the explanatory oral evidence as part of the evidence of the Crown. . . .

“Can it be said that, in the facts of this particular case, P24 contains any statements “as to the circumstances of the transaction which resulted in” the deceased’s death on 9th October 1951? Even if one gives those statements a meaning which is most favourable to the Crown, they amount at best to mere “general expressions indicating fear or suspicion of (the prisoner) and not directly related to the occasion of (her) death.”

“. . . The circumstances to which the deceased’s statements relate must, said Lord Atkin, “have some proximate relation to the actual occurrence.” Following this principle, I [Justice Gratiaen] am satisfied that the reception of the proposed evidence under Sec. 32 (1) would not be justified. . . .
NLR 255 ends thus:

“Once it is conceded, as it has been, that the truth of what was said in this document must be proved by independent evidence, justice requires that there should be very cogent reasons for admitting the document in its entirety for some remotely relevant purpose which is disproportionate to the potential prejudice which its reception is almost certain to produce.

“Objection as to the reception of certain evidence upheld.”

Unconvinced by the NLR 255 argument that made Ananda Sathasivam’s letter “inadmissible”, and puzzled by the legalese of NLR 255, we sought legal elucidation. We made an appointment with a senior President’s Counsel, a close family friend whose chambers are a 10-minute walk from our home. It was a 7 p.m. appointment. The lawyer went through NLR 255 while we looked around at the well-appointed room, with its imposing shelves of law books, as well as framed certificates, family photographs and mementoes of overseas travel.

“Could you please explain why the murder victim’s letter written to the Police days before her murder was found to be inadmissible? I cannot understand the argument.”

After reading through NLR 255, the PC said the letter would have been considered irrelevant because it did not address the act of murder.
“The letter nowhere says that Ananda Sathasivam ‘fears for her life’. She merely expresses anxiety.”

“The letter says ‘. . . from my knowledge and experience of my husband, I have reason to fear that he may attempt to force his way into the house and use violence.’ Mrs. Sathasivam fears violence.

“But she doesn’t say she fears for her life,” persisted the PC.

“Surely the word ‘violence’ covers everything, from a slap on the face to a battering to murder,” we argued.

Mahadeva Sathasivam

“Please note that the Crown, the prosecution, finally agreed to withdraw the letter. If the letter was admissible, would the prosecution have gone along with the defence and withdrawn it? They could have objected, but they didn’t.”

“Wouldn’t you say that was rather baffling on the part of the prosecution? The letter says clearly that there was fear in the mind of Ananda Sathasivam, and she feared violence. What more do you want? In so many words, the legal document says that because Ms. Sathasivam didn’t say she expected to be murdered, her letter becomes inadmissible. I find that hard to accept. If I was a brother or a cousin or a distant relative of the murder victim, I would feel obliged to protest most vehemently.”

The Crown

The Crown of Britain is stamped on every page of the Sathasivam case. In 1953, Sri Lanka was Ceylon and a part of the Dominion of Commonwealth Nations. All things legal came under the Crown.

Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation on 2 June 1953 had to be considered in the scheduling of witnesses in the Sathasivam trial. The defence was most anxious that Sir Sydney Smith, the renowned forensic expert, based at the University of Edinburgh, appeared in person to give evidence.
Sir Sydney had already written and sent his professional observations and opinions, based on materials the defence had sent him surrounding the Sathasivam murder. The written submissions were not enough. Sir Sydney had to be in court in person.

With difficulty Sir Sydney rescheduled his packed programme for May and June 1953 to include a few days in Colombo to serve as a witness at the trial. He insisted on being back in England for the Coronation.

In his book “Mostly Murder”, Sir Sydney describes his crowded itinerary in detail and his concern that he might miss the Coronation. He was happy to get on the plane back to England, but he would have been even happier to get off the plane.

Sir Sydney had been receiving fiercely hostile hate mail for “interfering” in the trial of Mahadeva Sathasivam. One of his anonymous enemies was praying to all the gods that Sir Sydney’s plane would crash before it landed in Heathrow.

Sir Sydney was in his seat at 7 am on 2 June 1953 in Westminster Abbey, along with the other 8,250 invitees at the Coronation. The service began at 11.15 am and concluded at 2.00 pm.

The Crown, or Diadem, the Queen wore was studded with 169 pearls and 1,333 diamonds.

To be continued

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