Bandit queen Phoolan Devi is in no competition for Jolly Joseph—accused of poisoning six members of her family—as she was a brigand leader who got her underlings to do the act. There may also be instances of murders committed in rage, in response to long years of suppression or in retaliation, but none like the cold-blooded murders this ostensibly pious woman committed to satiate her lust for wealth.
In what has come to be known as the Koodathai murders, Jolly Joseph of this Kozhikode suburb killed six members of her family over a period of 14 years in cold blood. Her modus operandi was to give her victims cyanide-laden food, which caused almost instant death. It turns out that she carried a small bottle of the deadly substance in her handbag so that she could strike at will.
Jolly Joseph was the ultimate bundle of contradictions. She had a pleasing disposition outwardly, was a regular at the church. For over a decade, she went about pretending to be a member of the faculty at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), undetected, which raised her standing in the neighbourhood. Every day she would leave home without fail, but spent her time in a beauty parlour, for 14 long years.
Her first victim was her mother-in-law Annamma, whom she poisoned to death in 2002. The mother-in-law was targeted because she was in command at the Ponnamattam house, where Jolly arrived as the daughter-in-law in 1996. That was followed by the father- in-law Tom Thomas, who was killed six years later in what was made out to be a case of heart attack, but the death was actually plotted by Jolly with the use of cyanide.
Within the next three years, her husband Roy Thomas was bumped off in a similar fashion. Although traces of cyanide were found on his body during postmortem, she managed to prevent any police investigation, spinning off a story that he had committed suicide. That was followed by the death of her mother-in-law’s brother Manjadiyil Mathew, who was found writhing in pain by his neighbours. Mathew died before reaching the hospital. Jolly targeted him because Mathew had raised suspicions about the death of Roy and was suspicious of her.
Her next target was the family of her husband’s cousin Shaju, in whom she saw a prospective partner. Jolly proceeded to eliminate Shaju’s wife Sily and 2-year old daughter Alphin to marry him; Sily’s murder was preceded by two failed attempts.
The increasing frequency of the crimes—the second murder was committed after a gap of six years, the third one took three years and last two were executed within a year—the gap kept narrowing and the police say her arrest may have averted many more unnatural deaths.
Jolly Joseph used a web of deceit and falsehood to execute her plots. She built up a powerful network of officials and local politicians. Her arrest followed a sensational week of bizarre events, including the reopening of tombs for chemical examination of the remains. Jolly had reportedly fainted when she learnt that the police was planning to open the tombs for clues. The use of cyanide itself shows a high level of criminal mind, as it leaves no trace with the passage of time.
The murders were spaced out so meticulously that nobody suspected any foul play. Jolly managed to use her clout within the family and used the ruse of family honour to keep a veil of secrecy over the deaths and pleaded with the relatives to keep the police away. In fact, she had made an attempt in vain to prevent the opening of the tombs. But things had slipped out of her hands by then.
The incident has shocked the collective conscience of the Malayali society, which is struggling to come to terms with the behaviour of the woman, who was held in high esteem in the local social order. This explains the large number of agitated crowds thronging the places where she is being taken by the police for collection of evidence. The victims belonged to a respectable family in the locality.
The society has pronounced her guilty, but the prosecution will have to reconstruct the sequence of events and prove the case beyond doubt in the court. The time lag and gaps in evidence will be major hurdles. It will no doubt be a feather in the crown of Kerala Police if they crack it.
Mumbai-based criminal lawyer B A Aloor has come forward to defend Jolly. Aloor has reportedly expressed confidence about the prospects of his client. Aloor had shot to fame in 2016, when he got the Supreme Court to commute the death sentence awarded to Govindaswamy, charged with the rape and murder of a young girl in a sensational case which had similarly shocked public conscience.
Jolly’s confessions to the police may be prompted by legal coaching and the knowledge that statements made before the police can easily be retracted in the court as having been made under duress. The prosecution has a massive challenge to prove the charges as traces of cyanide are difficult to be found on the bodies after decomposition. In the absence of eyewitnesses, the police have a tough task in hand.