Holding the conviction of a man convicted for setting his sister in law on fire, resulting in her death as invalid, the Supreme Court yesterday highlighted the plight of an innocent person.
The case came up before the Supreme Court when a Trial Court in Haryana convicted the husband and brother in law for the murder of the wife. The division bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court too dismissed the appeal filed. Hearing the appeal, the Court acquitted the brother in law while maintaining the conviction of the husband.
The prosecution submitted to the Court that the deceased had made a dying declaration. The judgment of the Supreme Court notes the same as, “husband, Jeth and Jethani poured kerosene oil on her and set ablaze. It is also stated in her dying declaration that her husband had illicit relation with his Bhabi Bimla (since deceased), with the result she used to pick up quarrel with him. Her husband gave her beatings under the influence of intoxication. None made attempt to extinguish fire.”
At the trial, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem opined, “burn injuries were approximately 50% and cause of death of Rajni was due to ante mortem burns, which were sufficient to cause death in ordinary course of nature.”
Another doctor who examined the deceased said that possibility of burn injuries in this case by fall of kerosene oil on the head cannot be ruled out. The father of the deceased mentioned about dowry demands and the history, which included court proceedings and interventions from Panchayat.
The case also involved the testimony of a child, which was declared inadmissible by the Trial Court saying the child was tutored. The child had said, “She heard cries of her mother in the kitchen. She came out and told that she had caught fire due to falling of burning lamp on her as glass of the lamp got broken after falling upon her.”
The Trial Court convicted all the three accused persons under Section 302/498-A read with Section 34 IPC and sentenced them with rigorous imprisonment for life and imposed a fine of Rs.5,000/-under Section 302 read with Section 34 IPC and rigorous imprisonment for one year and fine of Rs. 500/-under Section 498A-read with Section 34 IPC on each accused convicts.
The judgment mentions the contentions submitted by the appellants, it states, “Mrs. Meenakshi Arora, learned senior counsel appearing for the appellants assailed the judgment of conviction as being contrary to law and the facts of the case and that the prosecution has not proved the case beyond reasonable doubt.” The Ld. Counsel also submitted, “The dying declaration cannot be relied upon and conviction cannot be based on vague statement. She submitted that in the dying declaration, there is neither any mention of time of its recording nor there is any mention about the state of mind of the deceased while making her statement before the Magistrate. The dying declaration is also not in question answer form.”
It was also submitted that the motive of giving dying declaration could not be ruled out.
The judgment also notes the final contention made, “Finally, she submitted that in the absence of eye-witness to the incident the prosecution story based on inconsistent evidence of the witnesses cannot be relied upon.”
On the other hand, Addl. Advocate General appearing for the State, firstly submitted that the statement made by the deceased on the dying declaration is sufficient to convict the appellants for the offence committed by them.
The judgment written by Justice Eqbal also quoted the judgment delivered by a 3 judge bench of the Supreme Court in Kali Ram v. State of Himachal Pradesh, (1973) 2 SCC 808 as, “It is no doubt true that wrongful acquittals are undesirable and shake the confidence of the people in the judicial system, much worse, however, is the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. The consequences of the conviction of an innocent person are far more serious and its reverberations cannot but be felt in a civilised society. Suppose an innocent person is convicted of the offence of murder and is hanged, nothing further can undo the mischief for the wrong resulting from the unmerited conviction is irretrievable. To take another instance, if an innocent person is sent to jail and undergoes the sentence, the scars left by the miscarriage of justice cannot be erased by any subsequent act of expiation. Not many persons undergoing the pangs of wrongful conviction are fortunate like Dreyfus to have an Emile Zola to champion their cause and succeed in getting the verdict of guilt annulled. All this highlights the importance of ensuring, as far as possible, that there should be no wrongful conviction of an innocent person. Some risk of the conviction of the innocent, of course, is always there in any system of the administration of criminal justice. Such a risk can be minimised but not ruled out altogether. It may in this connection be apposite to refer to the following observations of Sir Carleton Alien quoted on p. 157 of The Proof of Guilt by Glanville Williams, 2nd Edn.:“I dare say some sentimentalists would assent to the proposition that it is better that a thousand or even a million guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer; but no responsible and practical person would accept such a view. For it is obvious that if our ratio is extended indefinitely, there comes a point when the whole system of justice has broken down and society is in a state of chaos.”
The Court also negated the submission made by the appellant regarding dying declaration, it states “Merely because dying declaration was not in question answer form, the sanctity attached to a dying declaration as it comes from the mouth of a dying person cannot be brushed aside and its reliability cannot be doubted.”
Acquitting the brother in law and his wife, the Court noted “we are of the view that there areno corroborative evidence to come to the conclusion that these two participated along with the main accused Mahender Singh for the commission of the offence.” Also, “Admittedly, neither in the dying declaration nor in the statement of witnesses it has come in light as to what act was done by the accused- Prem Kumar.”
The Court then said, “In our considered opinion, the benefit of doubt should be given to accused-appellant Prem Kumar and his conviction cannot be sustained.”
However, the Court convicted the husband and said “Sufficient evidence has come on record and the prosecution has established the case that it was Mahender Singh at whose instance and instigation she was subjected to death by pouring kerosene oil and lit on fire. We are, therefore, of the view that the finding recorded by the trial court as also by the Appellate Court as against main accused Mahender Singh (husband of the deceased) cannot be interfered with.”