23 Sep 2023 4:45 AM GMT
After noting "yawning gaps" in the evidence and "infirmities" in the prosecution, the Supreme Court recently acquitted three persons in a case for murder and kidnap of a teenager. Two of the accused were awarded death sentence by the Trial Court, which the High Court had affirmed. The third accused was awarded life sentence.While setting aside the conviction and sentence of all the...
After noting "yawning gaps" in the evidence and "infirmities" in the prosecution, the Supreme Court recently acquitted three persons in a case for murder and kidnap of a teenager. Two of the accused were awarded death sentence by the Trial Court, which the High Court had affirmed. The third accused was awarded life sentence.
While setting aside the conviction and sentence of all the accused persons, the Supreme Court was perplexed to note that the Trial Court and the High Court found the accused guilty and went to the extent of imposing death penalty on two of them "despite the innumerable weak links and loopholes in the prosecution’s case".
The Court emphasized that the case did not meet the criteria for being considered the ‘rarest of rare cases’ warranting such severe punishment.
The Bench, comprising Justices B.R. Gavai, J.B. Pardiwala and Sanjay Kumar, held:
“No valid and acceptable reasons were put forth as to why this case qualified as the ‘rarest of rare cases’, warranting such drastic punishment. Per contra, we find that the yawning infirmities and gaps in the chain of circumstantial evidence in this case warrant acquittal of the appellants by giving them the benefit of doubt. The degree of proof required to hold them guilty beyond reasonable doubt, on the strength of circumstantial evidence, is clearly not established”,
The Court was also dismayed by how the investigation was conducted and expressed its deep concern while highlighting the need for a consistent and dependable investigation procedure.
“It is high time, perhaps, that a consistent and dependable code of investigation is devised with a mandatory and detailed procedure for the police to implement and abide by during the course of their investigation so that the guilty do not walk free on technicalities, as they do in most cases in our country. We need say no more.”
Senior Advocate Siddharth Luthra, briefed by Project 39A at National Law University Delhi, appeared for the appellants.
Facts of the case revolved around one Ajit Pal, a 15-year-old, who was killed brutally in the last week of July, 2013. A neighbour, Om Prakash Yadav, along with his brother, Raja Yadav, and son, Rakesh Yadav, stood trial for Ajit Pal’s murder and connected offences. The Additional Sessions Judge, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, convicted all three of them on different counts. While, Om Prakash Yadav was sentenced to life imprisonment, Raja Yadav and Rajesh Yadav were sentenced to death for the offences under Sections 302 and 364A IPC. Aggrieved thereby, all three convicts appealed to the High Court of Madhya Pradesh; however, High Court confirmed their conviction and sentences, including the death penalty visited upon Raja Yadav and Rajesh Yadav. Thus, the present appeal.
In a case resting on circumstantial evidence, the prosecution must establish a chain of unbroken events.
At the outset, the Court observed that a conspectus of the prosecution’s case clearly reveals that it is poised entirely on circumstantial evidence as there was no eyewitness to the kidnapping and murder of Ajit Pal. It went on to opine that in a case resting on circumstantial evidence, the prosecution must establish a chain of unbroken events, unerringly pointing to the guilt of the accused and none other. To support these observations, reliance was placed on several judgments, including the landmark decision in Hanumant vs. State of Madhya Pradesh (1952) 2 SCC 71, wherein it was held “…there must be a chain of evidence so far complete as not to leave any reasonable ground for a conclusion consistent with the innocence of the accused and it must be such as to show that within all human probability the act must have been done by the accused.”
Applying these standards presently, the Court found that the prosecution utterly failed to pass muster in establishing its case. It held: “There are cavernous gaps in the evidence that the prosecution would offer as an 'unbroken chain unerringly pointing to the appellants' guilt. Discrepancies galore in the prosecution's case tear as under the fabric of its purported version as to how events unfolded.”
It highlighted that the higher principle of 'proof beyond reasonable doubt' and, more so, in a case built on circumstantial evidence, would have to prevail and be given priority. Furthermore, given the lack of conclusive evidence, the Court was perplexed that, despite the innumerable weak links and loopholes in the prosecution’s case, the Trial Court as well as the High Court were not only inclined to accept the same at face value but went to the extent of imposing and sustaining capital punishment on Rajesh Yadav and Raja Yadav.
Findings pertaining to the subpar police investigation
Regarding the investigation undertaken by the police in the present case, the Court categorially observed: “The proverbial last nails in the coffin of the prosecution’s case, if at all needed, are the shocking lapses and the slipshod investigation on the part of the police. We may note with deep and profound concern the disappointing standards of police investigation that seem to be the invariable norm.”
It referred to the Report of Dr. Justice V.S.Malimath’s ‘Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System,’ which recorded:
‘The manner in which police investigations are conducted is of critical importance to the functioning of the Criminal Justice System. Not only serious miscarriage of justice will result if the collection of evidence is vitiated by error or malpractice, but successful prosecution of the guilty depends on a thorough and careful search for truth and collection of evidence which is both admissible and probative.’
Imperatively, echoing the same sentiment in its Report No.239 in March 2012, the Law Commission of India observed that the principal causes of the low rate of conviction in our country, inter alia, included an inept, unscientific investigation by the police and lack of proper coordination between police and prosecution machinery. Based on this, the Court opined, “Despite passage of considerable time since these gloomy insights, we are dismayed to say that they remain sadly true even to this day.”
Addressing the facts of the case, the Court expressed dissatisfaction regarding how the police tailored their investigation. It went on to hold that investigation was conducted “with complete indifference to the essential norms in proceeding against the accused and in gathering evidence; leaving important leads unchecked and glossing over other leads that did not suit the story that they had conceived; and, ultimately, in failing to present a cogent, conceivable and fool-proof chain of events pointing to the guilt of the appellants, with no possibility of any other hypothesis, leaves us with no option but to extend the benefit of doubt to the appellants.”
In view of these facts and circumstances, the Court allowed the appeals and set aside the conviction and sentences of all three appellants on all counts.
Case Title: Rajesh & Anr v. The State of Madhya Pradesh, Criminal Appeal No(s). 793-794 of 2022
Citation : 2023 LiveLaw (SC) 814; 2023INSC839
Click here to read the judgment