There was an article in the news recently about a journalist named Jagendra who died of burns in North India.
The man had either been set on fire by policemen who had come to his house on behalf of a corrupt minister, or set himself on fire in their presence.
The policemen insist that the victim set himself on fire when they were at his house.
The victim, in his dying declaration, said that the cops had set him on fire.
The undisputed facts of the case seem to be that:
a) the cops had gone to the journalist’s house to ask him to stop investigating a minister’s murky land deals (of which there seem to be many in this Northern state of India)
b) on the roof of his house, in the presence of the cops, the journalist was doused (with petrol?) and set on fire
What is disputed is whether the cops set the victim on fire, or if he did so himself.
The police investigators seem to have arrived at the latter conclusion in their forensic report, dismissing the case as one of suicide, and letting the murder accused off the hook.
What I will attempt to show in this article is that the opposite conclusion could have been arrived at just as easily.
I will also argue that linguistic theory supports the victim’s claims and not the cops’.
The forensic report prepared by the police investigators noted that:
there were “more wounds on the left side of Jagendra’s abdomen, just below his chest.”
“This indicated that he had poured kerosene over himself with his right hand. Besides, he sustained burn injuries on lower half of the body which usually is not the case of someone else pours the inflammable fuel on the burnt body,” added the source.
Sources in the forensic team which prepared the report told The Hindu on condition of anonymity that “the lower part of the body is affected only if the person himself pours the fuel on the body. But if a person pours fuel on a other person the upper part of the body gets affected“.
The cops’ assumptions above seem to be bad ones, because a paper in the “Journal of the Euro-Mediterranean Council for Burns and Fire Disasters” titled “Outcomes of patients who commit suicide by burning” says that there is involvement of the upper part of the body when people commit suicide by self-immolation:
The mechanism of the action together with the absence of the will to rescue oneself from the flames leads in most cases to involvement of the face, trunk, and upper extremities as also to frequent inhalation injury.
So, the investigators’ assumptions appear flawed.
Lack of Common Sense
And frankly, the police investigators’ report seems to lack in common sense in many ways.
To someone with common sense, it would seem that the location of burns couldn’t really tell one anything much about whether the burns were self-inflicted or not.
In other words, it would seem that the police were looking at immaterial clues.
Which brings us to a concept from machine learning.
There is, in machine learning, a concept called ‘feature engineering’.
If you want to solve a decision problem correctly using machine learning, you have to point out the relevant facts to the machine learning algorithm.
Facts as Features
The relevant facts are called features. Selecting the right set of facts to use in decision making is called ‘feature engineering’.
Example of Feature Engineering
For example, if I told you that a flag had three horizontal stripes and asked you to decide which country that flag belonged to, you would not be able to decide correctly.
You would need to know the colours of the stripes before you could decide which country the flag belonged to.
Features for Murder/Suicide
Returning to the murder/suicide, when deciding whether the death of the journalist was a case of murder or suicide, the police seem to have used a very weak set of features.
What features could they have used to make a better decision?
1) The presence or absence of burn injuries on the hands of the cops
Had the cops merely been witnesses to the burning, and not perpetrators, they would have tried to put out the fire.
Since the victim was on the roof, they would have tried to smother the fire with their own shirts and their hands.
If the cops could demonstrate that they had burnt or singed their hands and shirts, it would add weight to their version of events.
On the other hand, if they could not, one might be more inclined to believe the victim’s.
2) The use of petrol if it is confirmed
The Wikipedia page on the burning says that petrol was used.
The most common flammable liquid in an Indian home is kerosene, not petrol. Petrol is something that someone is more likely to come across on the road.
So, if it can be confirmed that the journalist was burnt with petrol, not kerosene, it would lend credence to the version of events in the journalist’s dying declaration.
3) The burning having taken place on the roof
Had the journalist wanted to kill himself, he could have done so inside his house just as easily as on the roof.
In fact, if he had wanted to malign the cops, he would not have chosen a place where he would not have been seen setting himself on fire by his neighbours.
Since the victim was on his roof when he suffered burn injuries, it seems more likely that he was chased till he was cornered (on the roof).
So, if the location of burning can be proved to be the roof, it would lend credence to the victim’s version of the events.
4) Whether the cops had purchased petrol on the way
If petrol had been used, and purchased on the way by the cops, it might be possible to get confirmation of the purchase of petrol in a bottle from one or other of the pumps on the way.
If any pump en route could confirm such a purchase, it would lend credence to the victim’s version.
5) Fingerprints on the container
The flammable liquid would have had to have been stored or carried in a container. The container would have remained on the site, especially if the cops’ version of the story was true.
Finger-prints could easily be lifted off the container and used to identify the perpetrator.
6) The journalist thought he had been attacked with kerosene
The journalist in his dying moments, reportedly said: “Why did they have to burn me? If the Minister and his people had something against me, they could have hit me and beaten me, instead of pouring kerosene over me and burning me.”
So, the victim in his dying statement seems to have thought that he was being doused with kerosene.
He would not have mistaken petrol for kerosene if he had purchased it himself (providing petrol was the flammable liquid used).
7) The journalist asked why
It is also relevant that the victim asked “Why did they have to burn me”.
An inquiry is used by humans when they want to try and make sense of the world (when they want to adjust their mental model to reality).
Had the victim wanted to make people believe in a falsehood, it seems more likely that he would have uttered a false statement instead of a question.
Had the victim been lying, I would linguistically have expected him to have said something to the tune of: “I promise you that these men set me on fire. They poured petrol on me!”
8) The motive
Had the motive of the journalist been nothing more than to stick it to the cops, he surely seems to have chosen a bad way to do so.
He could never have known beforehand that he would survive long enough to talk to a magistrate.
The cops, however, having admitted to acting on behalf of the minister, certainly had a motive – to silence the journalist and send a message to others like him.
The cops investigating the murder of the journalist Jagendra seem to have dropped the charges against the accused on very flimsy grounds.
An impartial investigation by someone other than the local cops would be, in this case, more than desirable.
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