A murder case that shocked Sri Lanka in the late 1970s was the double murder at the Vicarage of St. Paul’s Church in Punchi Borella. It attracted the attention of Sri Lankans not because the main accused in the case was a well-known religious personality whose services – not only in matters relating to merciful [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Medico-legal mystery made accessible to all


A murder case that shocked Sri Lanka in the late 1970s was the double murder at the Vicarage of St. Paul’s Church in Punchi Borella. It attracted the attention of Sri Lankans not because the main accused in the case was a well-known religious personality whose services – not only in matters relating to merciful divinity but also those concerning the fearful dark world – had been sought by many a Sri Lankan irrespective of their religious faiths.

Sri Lankans were drawn to this case due to a number of other reasons: the sensational romanticism surrounding the case, the suspense of the plot that would out-beat even an Agatha Christie novel, the challenges faced by law enforcement agencies including the medical profession in proving the charges and the test of independence which the country’s court system had been subjected to, given the high social connections which the main accused had enjoyed.

But over the years, the fine details of the case got naturally erased from people’s memories leaving only a sketchy reference behind. After more than three and a half decades, anyone would still remember the case only by its name and the leading personality behind it. In this background, the case has been revisited by a forensic medicine expert who has taken it as his passion the rediscovery of shocking murder cases forgotten by people due to the passage of time. That expert is none other than Colombo Medical School’s Senior Professor Ravindra Fernando who has presented the case in a 545- page book titled “Murders at the Vicarage: The Mathew Peiris Case”.

Previously, Prof. Fernando had published a similarly forgotten case going deep into the medico-legal details covering the famous Sathasivam Murder Case of the 1930s under the title “A Murder in Ceylon”. The present book is the second of a series of books he is planning to bring out revisiting and rediscovering such murder cases which have baffled Sri Lankans.

Prof. Fernando uses poetic language to present the case thereby binding his readers to him unreservedly. Thus, a reader does not get bored. Though the book is long – 545 pages– there is no quitting midway. The case is highly technical, comprehensible only to advanced medico-legal minds. Yet, in Prof. Fernando’s clever hands, it has become laymen’s stuff. While narrating the story, the author educates his readers of the complicated medical conditions involving various parts of a human body. For instance, if anyone wants to master how insulin works inside a body, all he has to do is to read the pages 45 to 47.

The case in short as presented by Prof. Fernando is as follows.
Rev. Mathew Peiris was the Vicar of St Paul’s Church in Punchi Borella living with his wife Eunice Lois Peiris in the vicarage. They had three children, two daughters and one son, and all of them had been living in England at the time of the incident. He was famous for driving out evil spirits that had possessed human bodies or occupied houses through exorcism, a practice somewhat alien to a clergyman of the Christian faith. In fact every Thursday, he used his service to help those who attended it with problems of evil spirits. One of the devotees who had attended the Thursday congregation was the young married woman Dalrene Ingram who was later appointed by Rev. Peiris as his secretary. At that time, both Ingrams were unemployed and more than willing to accept the offer of a job and a place to live in. Accordingly, the Ingram family, Dalrene, her husband Russel Ingram and the three children, moved to the vicarage at the request of Rev. Peiris. At that time, Eunice Peiris was living with her children in England again as advised by Rev. Peiris.

The launch
‘Murders at the Vicarage – The Mathew Peiris Case’, will be launched on August 5 at 5.30 p.m. at the Auditorium of the Organisation of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka (OPA), 275/75, Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha, Off Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7.

While the Chief Guest will be former Attorney General Tilak Marapana, President’s Counsel, who prosecuted Rev. Mathew Peiris, the Guest of Honour will be the producer of the film, ‘According to Mathew’ based on Mathew Peiris case, Chandran Rutnam.

After the Ingrams moved to the vicarage, Russel Ingram who was in good health previously fell ill all of a sudden with a complication arising from an unexplainable fall in blood glucose levels and was brought to the Colombo General Hospital in a serious coma condition. He died in hospital. Then, Mrs Eunice Peiris returned to Sri Lanka from England and she too experienced a fall in blood glucose level that ended up in her falling into a coma. She too was admitted to the General Hospital and died in the hospital without gaining consciousness. These two deaths would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the suspicious eyes of the physicians of the Colombo General Hospital. They had suspected foul play and accordingly alerted the Police.

The investigations by the Police with expert advice from the physicians at the Hospital and dons at the Medical Faculty confirmed the suspicions. It was suspected that Rev. Mathew Peiris together with Dalrene Ingram had administered insulin to both patients to cause a fall in the blood glucose levels leading to their deaths eventually. The Police which carried out the investigations with the support of the medical experts at the Colombo Medical Faculty indicted, on the advice of the Attorney General, both Rev. Mathew Peiris and Dalrene Ingram on the count of conspiring to murder and actually carrying out murder.
The case was heard by a three judge panel of the High Court, known as Trial at Bar, on the request of the accused who, for obvious reasons, did not want their case be heard before a jury that would have made pre-judgments on them given the wide publicity which the case had attracted.

The prosecution was led by Solicitor General Tilak Marapana who later became the Attorney General. Two teams of leading criminal lawyers defended the two accused. There was no direct evidence to establish the charges against them. Hence, the prosecution had to rely on circumstantial evidence to prove their case on the basis of the evidence given by family members of Rev. Peiris and expert evidence by specialists from the medical profession.

That was not an easy task by any means. It was a learning experience for both the prosecution team and the three judges since the material presented in the case was of highly technical nature. Thus, they had to sift through evidence carefully to eliminate all the possibilities that would not link the accused to the two deaths.

Yet, the challenge was taken seriously by them with total dedication and commitment. The judgment, which is considerably long and reproduced by Prof. Fernando in the book, was unanimous: That, Rev. Mathew Peiris and Dalrene Ingram were guilty of both counts, the conspiracy to murder and actually carrying out of the murder. Accordingly, the death sentence was passed on both of them. On subsequent appeal to the Court of Appeal, Dalrene was acquitted and Rev. Mathew Peiris was acquitted on the charge of conspiracy to murder. But he was still convicted of murder and therefore the judgment delivered by the High Court was upheld. The Supreme Court too upheld the judgment of the Court of Appeal. Thus, Rev. Peiris was sentenced to death but it was never carried out since Sri Lanka had suspended the carrying out of death penalty some sixteen years ago. Rev. Mathew Peiris, a man who drove away evil spirits from the bodies of people and their houses through exorcism, was condemned to be surrounded by such evil spirits in a long prison sentence.

Book facts
Murders at the Vicarage: The Mathew Peiris Case- by Professor Ravindra Fernando.
Reviewed by W.A. Wijewardena

Prof. Fernando describes this irony in poetic language as follows: “His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1994. Rev Peiris was confined to a nine feet by ten feet prison cell with a 15 feet high roof. It had only a single high window and iron barred door. The cell was kept locked from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. everyday” (p 542). His prison life was not a happy one at all. He was released from prison on good behaviour in 1997 at the age of 79 after spending 15 years in prison. One month after his release, he was interviewed by the Sunday Times and Fernando has reported Rev Peiris’ description of his prison life as related to the Sunday Times journalist.

He was a diabetic and therefore given a diabetic diet which he called a ‘Spartan diet’ naming it after the frugal life which ancient Romans lived. For breakfast, it was a bun with ‘pol sambol’ (scraped coconut ground with chillies, onion and salt and mixed with a sprinkle of lime juice). Lunch had consisted of two vegetables, and fish or soya or lentil. He had bread with the same vegetables and eggs and a slice of papaw for dinner. On a vow he had taken at an Ashram in India, he had not cut his hair. Was he repenting for the crimes he was alleged to have committed? No, and he had maintained throughout that he was innocent. He had made the best out of his prison life. He had been the captain of the prison cricket team, continued to read till midnight, woke up at 4 a.m. and did Yoga and breathing exercises to keep him mentally healthy. He committed his life to God and declared boldly that he never lost faith in God. Within one year after his release from prison, he died at the age of 80.

Ravindra Fernando’s revisiting of Rev. Mathew Peiris case, presenting in detail the evidence and the judgment, is a worthy read for those in the medico-legal profession as well as ordinary laymen. He has once again demonstrated his language skills which are unusual for a man nurtured throughout his professional life as a busy physician, teacher and scientist.

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