The trial of Stephen Seneviratne began on May 14, 1934, at the Colombo Assizes before the first Malay Judge of the Supreme Court, Justice M.T. Akbar, and an English speaking jury. This judge was considered a clever legal personality. Deputy Solicitor General M.W.H. de Silva with Crown Counsel H.L. Wendt and Police Superintendent J.R.G. Bantock [...]

Sunday Times 2

Murder by chloroform at Duff House

Part 2

The trial of Stephen Seneviratne began on May 14, 1934, at the Colombo Assizes before the first Malay Judge of the Supreme Court, Justice M.T. Akbar, and an English speaking jury. This judge was considered a clever legal personality.

Deputy Solicitor General M.W.H. de Silva with Crown Counsel H.L. Wendt and Police Superintendent J.R.G. Bantock and Dr. M.V.P. Pieris appeared for the prosecution. Dr. Pieris assisted in the examination of the medical witnesses. Incidentally, DSG Silva subsequently became the Attorney General and after his retirement was appointed Minister of Justice.

King’s Counsel R.L. Pereira, H.A.P. Sandrasagara KC and Stanley Obeysekera KC, with Eric Soysa and P.H.P. Jayatilleke appeared for Stephen Seneviratne.

Pereira and Sangrasagara were the top criminal lawyers at that time. Amongst the prosecution witnesses were Alpina the servant woman, Mabel Joseph the nanny, Seelas, Martin and Banda — the servant boys, K.D. Simon the cook, and driver Simon Perera.
Thereafter, Mrs. Harry Dias Banadaranaike, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Seneviratne, Mr. and Mrs. Leo D’Alwis, Edmund Dassanaike, Proctor Felix Jayawardene, Dr. Gunaratnam Cooke and Mrs. Ohlmus also gave evidence, for the prosecution.

The job of the prosecution was tricky and had to be handled delicately because Mrs. Stephen Seneviratne had on more than one occasion threatened to commit suicide. All the defence had to do was, not to prove that Stephen did not commit the murder, but only to create a reasonable doubt.

The trial judge Justice Akbar was a deeply religious man, who could be swayed by religious sentiments, apart from the evidence. This was a case where much medical (technical) evidence needed evaluation, and Judge Akbar was quite competent to handle this aspect. Akbar Hall in the Peradeniya Campus is named after him.

Many doctors gave evidence. Dr. S.C.Paul’s son Prof. Milroy Paul was firmly of the view that the external injuries were consistent with the application of chloroform, whether self inflicted or applied by an external force. He cut across his father’s view that death was due to syncope or heart failure, following an overdose of Aspirin. Father and son figured prominently in this case, particularly due to their divergent opinions.

Dr. S.C. Paul produced several brilliant children. Milroy Paul, professor of surgery, whose son, Csrown Counsel Wakely Paul was a friend of mine. It is said that he got into the clutches of the LTTE Diaspora, while he was in the US. Another son, A.T.S. Paul was, I believe, a thoracic surgeon. Yet another son was Paul Jayarajan, the father of my schoolmate the late Ana, who lived close to my parental home in Flower Rd, Colombo 7. Paul Jayarajan entered the prestigious Indian Civil Service.

A daughter of Dr. S.C. Paul, I think, married former Solicitor General R.R. Crossette-Thambiah, whose son Malli Crossette-Thambiaah, was a top lawyer. Another of Dr. Paul’s daughters married Mr. Rasaretnam, who became Surveyor General. His daughter Sulochana married my friend Ajit Saravanamuttu, the youngest of P. Sara’s children. Rasaretnam’s son Rudy was an eminent surgeon. Malli Crossette and Rudy were gentlemen to their fingertips. I believe that Dr. S.C. Paul had many other children, whose names I am not aware of.

Dr. M.V.P. Pieris (who also assisted the prosecution) was an eminent surgeon who was ambidextrous. After his retirement, he served as High Commissioner in London. The other medical men who gave evidence were Dr. T.S. Nair, who performed the post-mortem examination, and Dr. J.S. de Silva (senior anaesthetic at the General Hospital) who categorically stated that the deceased had committed suicide. Dr. R.L. Spittel, one of the best known surgeons of his day, was positive that it was homicide. Dr. Spittel was well known to the Veddha community. He wrote several books including “Where the wild sambur Roams”. Dr. Karunaratne MD was a highly experienced pathologist, who had performed nearly 3000 post-mortem examinations. He was present at the post-mortem of Mrs. Seneviratne, and his view was that it was a probable homicide. Therefore this murder trial was more like a Medical Seminar!

All doctors including Dr. S.C. Paul, were now agreed that chloroform was the cause of death; but there were two groups, (a) those who thought that death was due to Syncope, and (b) others who were of the view that death was due to asphyxia and syncope, or simply by smothering.

The evidence was concluded on June 8, and on the same afternoon the court took the unusual step of visiting Duff House. Although this visit was perfectly legal, it had to be conducted under specific conditions. An experiment before the judge and the foreman of the jury was performed by Dr. Pieris, in the absence of the other jurors. Inspector Van Cuylenberg was to lie on a bed and was requested to make noises like groans. The Privy Council decided that these demonstrations were irregular and unnecessary for the administration of justice.

Then began the address to the Jury of Deputey Solicitor General Silva, followed by the brilliant address of Pereira K C.

Stephen Seneviratne was convicted by a 5 – 2 verdict of the Jury, and sentenced to death.

Pereira was easily the most devastating cross examiner of his day, and most witnesses, particularly doctors, dreaded to face him. He had a bull dog like exterior, and many a doctor had fainted under his cross examination. He lived in an enormous house at the intersection of Green Path and Flower Road, Colombo 7, which now houses the Education Dept. He had two children, Carmen West, and R.G.C. Pereira, the son who outshone the father, in the father’s life time. RGC was to be conferred Silk, but for his untimely death in his 50s. Due to differences of opinion with his father, he chose to live in a suite in the Galle Face Hotel.

There was no Court of Criminal Appeal then, and Stephen Seneviratne appealed to the Privy Council in England. The Appeal came up before Lord Maugham, Lord Roche and Sir George Rankin. D. B. Sommerville KC (Attorney General of England), with L. M. D. De Silva KC appeared for the AG of Ceylon, while Seneviratne was represented by H. I. P. Hallet KC and R. L. Pereira KC.

On July 29, 1936, their Lordships of the Privy Council advised His Majesty the King, that the Appeal was allowed, and the death sentenced quashed. Seneviratne left prison after spending 30 months, and rejoined his son whom he was immensely fond of.

Many strictures were passed by the Privy Council on Justice Akbar’s Charge to the Jury. It is rumoured that Akbar suffered a nervous breakdown, and retired prematurely.

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