Pat HC | Judicial approach on the death penalty ought to be cautious, circumspect and careful more so because the decision is permanent and irreversible; Appellant acquitted

Patna High Court: A Division Bench of Sanjay Karol CJ. and S.Kumar J., while addressing a death reference coupled with the criminal appeal, discussed several legal propositions, reiterating that, “It is true that only in the gravest of cases of extreme culpability, the sentence of death must be awarded – life imprisonment being the rule and death penalty the exception.”

Background

The Trial Court, vide judgment dated 18-01-2018, passed in Sessions Trial No.632 of 2015, found sufficient evidence, though not direct but circumstantial, against accused Niranjan and convicted him for committing an offence punishable under Section 302 of the Penal Code, 1860. Considering the gravity of crime, accused Niranjan was awarded sentence of death along with a fine of Rs 20000, in default thereof, to undergo simple imprisonment for a period of one month. The Death Reference No.1 of 2018 titled as The State of Bihar Versus Niranjan @ Alakhdeo Kumar is for confirmation of such sentence.

 Observations

Significant discussion was made on settled law points and principles of Criminal Jurisprudence, including;

Circumstantial Evidence

The Court cited a catena of judgments to emphasize the standard of proof required in a case sought to be established on circumstantial evidence, particularly;

  • Chandmal v. State of Rajasthan, (1976) 1 SCC 621; “Para 14. It is well settled that when a case rests entirely on circumstantial evidence, such evidence must satisfy three tests. Firstly, the circumstances from which an inference of guilt is sought to be drawn, must be cogently and firmly established. Secondly, these circumstances should be of a definite tendency unerringly pointing towards the guilt of the accused. Thirdly, the circumstances, taken cumulatively, should form a chain so complete that there is no escape from the conclusion that within all human probability the crime was committed by the accused and none else. That is to say, the circumstances should be incapable of explanation on any reasonable hypothesis save that of the accused’s guilt.”
  • In Sharad Birdhichand Sarda v. State of Maharashtra, (1984) 4 SCC 116, the Court took up the task of defining principles of standard of proof that must be adhered in order to establish a case on Circumstantial Evidence, which was further reiterated in Hanumant v. State of M.P., AIR 1952 SC 343 and Shivaji Sahabrao v. State of Maharashtra, (1973) 2 SCC 793. To highlight the same; (a) The circumstances from which the conclusion of guilt is to be drawn should be fully established (b) The facts so established should be consistent only with the hypothesis of the guilt of the accused, that is to say, they should not be explainable on any other hypothesis except that the accused is guilty (c) The circumstances should be of a conclusive nature and tendency (d) They should exclude every possible hypothesis except the one to be proved (e) There must be a chain of evidence so complete as not to leave any reasonable ground for the conclusion consistent with the innocence of the accused and must show that in all human probability the act must have been done by the accused.
  • Relying on another judgment, Gargi v. State of Haryana, (2019) 9 SCC 738, the Court observed, “(…) not all circumstantial evidence may lead towards the complicity of one accused, sometimes it may mislead or false clues may be laid by the accused to shift the suspicion on another. It is in this background the Court proceeds to appreciate the testimonies of the witnesses, which examination obviously, has to be in accordance with the settled principles of law. Are the testimonies inspiring in confidence? Are any material contradictions rendering the witnesses to be unbelievable? Are the variations in the testimonies simple which the Court can ignore? Do the testimonies, hearsay in nature, fully establish the prosecution case beyond a reasonable doubt?”

Appreciation of Witness Testimonies

While mentioning Sections 137 and 138 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, the Court said, “Generally, the veracity of the testimony of a witness is tested on the credibility of the witness and the truthfulness of their statement. The truthfulness of the statement can be determined in cross-examination by putting to the witness, their own previous statements or the testimonies of other witnesses. The credibility of a witness ought to be assessed by the Court by reading the statement as a whole, scrutinizing it against discrepancies and inconsistencies that go against the general tenor of the evidence given by the witness.” With respect to Cross-Examination the Court reiterated the observation in Tahsildar Singh v. State of UP, 1959 Supp (2) SCR 875, and Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, (1994) 3 SCC 569, citing latter, “Para 278. (…)It is jurisprudence of law that cross-examination

is an acid-test of truthfulness of the statement made by a witness on oath in examination-in-chief, the object of which are (1) to destroy and weaken the evidentiary value of the witness of this adversary (2) to elicit facts in favour of the cross-examining lawyer’s client from the mouth of the witness of the adversary party (3) to show that the witness is unworthy of belief by impeaching the credit of said witness; and the questions to be addressed in the course of cross-examination are to test his veracity; to discover who he is and what is his position in life; and to shake his credit by injuring his character.”

The Court further cited the case of Bhagwan Jagannath v. State of Maharashtra, (2016) 10 SCC 537, wherein the Supreme Court summarized the principles for the appreciation of credibility of a witness, in the words, “Para 19. While appreciating the evidence of a witness, the Court has to assess whether read as a whole, it is truthful. In doing so, the Court has to keep in mind the deficiencies, drawbacks and infirmaries to find out whether such discrepancies shake the truthfulness…Only when discrepancies are so incompatible as to affect the credibility of the version of a witness, the Court may reject the evidence…The Court has to sift the chaff from the grain and find out the truth. A statement may be partly rejected or partly accepted.” 

Motive under Section 8 Indian Evidence Act, 1872

The Court reproduced the text of Section 8, Indian Evidence Act, 1872 and further cited precedents reflecting upon importance of Motive in a Criminal Trial. Reliance was placed on Pawan v. State of Haryana, (2017) 4 SCC 140 observing that, “Failure to establish a motive does not nullify the entire case of the Prosecution; it merely impleads the Court to scrutinize the other evidence like witness testimony with greater care.” and Nizam v. State of Rajasthan, (2016) 1 SCC 550, wherein the Supreme Court said that “even if the

Prosecution can prove its case on the issue of motive, it is only a corroborative piece of evidence lending assurance to the Prosecution’s case and reiterated that in the absence of establishing a motive the entire case is not nullified.”

With the support of the aforementioned cases, Court in the present case noted “(…) nothing on record to establish prior animosity, altercation or assault on the part of the accused Niranjan”

Admissibility of testimony by Hostile Witness

The Court reiterated the settled legal position with respect to the admissibility of testimony by Hostile Witness. Following cases were cited for the same;

  • Sat Paul v. Delhi Administration, (1976) 1 SCC 727, wherein the Court said that “Just because a witness turns hostile, their entire testimony cannot be wiped out. The Court must consider whether as a result of cross-examination and contradiction, the witness stands thoroughly discredited or can still be believed in part of the testimony. Where the judge finds that in the process, the credit of the witness has not been completely shaken, he may, after reading and considering the evidence of the witness as a whole, with due care and caution and in light of other evidence on record, act on that part of the testimony, which he finds creditworthy. To the extent the version is found to be truthful and dependable, the same can be accepted.”
  • Bhagwan Singh v. State of Haryana, (1976) 1 SCC 389, Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi), (2010) 6 SCC 1, Veer Singh v. State of U.P., (2014) 2 SCC 455, Manoj Suryavanshi v. State of Chattisgarh, (2020) 4 SCC 451.

 Procedure to be followed for investigation/ Fault and lapses in the investigation

Reiterating the observations made in Lalita Kumari Case, (2014) 2 SCC 1, the Court said, “The role of the Investigating Officer is crucial not only throughout the process of the investigation but starts from when information about the offence is brought to their notice. It is imperative that for crimes such as murder, the Investigating Officer take cognizance of the offence at the earliest and initiate the process of investigation promptly. The benefit arising from a faulty investigation accrues in favour of the accused and has the potential to lead to a great travesty of justice for the rights of the victim. Therefore, it becomes essential that the investigation be conducted with the utmost regard for the procedure to be followed.”

Role/Duty of Prosecution

The Court also reflected upon the importance of Prosecution in a Criminal Trial, citing the case of, Ankush Maruti Shinde v. State of Maharashtra, (2019) 15 SCC 470, wherein the Court said, “Para 10.1 It is the duty of the Prosecution to ensure fairness in the proceedings and also to ensure that all relevant facts and circumstances are brought to the notice of the Court for just determination of the truth so that due justice prevails. It is the responsibility of the investigating agency to ensure that every investigation is fair and does not erode the freedom of an individual, except in accordance with law…”

Reliance was further placed on the cases of, State of Maharashtra v. Sukhdev Singh (1992) 3 SCC 700, Basavaraj R Patil v. State of Karnataka (2000) 8 SCC 740, Lallu Manji v. State of Jharkhand (2003) 2 SCC 401 and Naval Kishore Singh v. State of Bihar, (2004) 7 SCC 502.

Findings of the Trial Court

The Court discarding the findings and logic of the Trial Court, in convicting the accused, observed, “In our considered view, the Trial Judge totally failed to correctly appreciate the factual matrix and the testimonies of the witnesses; also appreciate and correctly apply the law. In fact, he misconstrued and misapplied them. We are dealing with a case of circumstantial evidence, and it is a cardinal principle of law, be the crime howsoever heinous, standing on its own legs, independently, the prosecution is required to establish its case beyond a reasonable doubt, linking the chain of circumstances by leading clear, cogent and consistent evidence, pointing to the hypothesis of the guilt of the accused alone and none else.”  Further, it was observed that the conviction is based more on preponderance of probability than proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is clearly not a principle of awarding sentence/conviction under Criminal Jurisprudence. The Court further recorded several anomalies in the process of investigation conducted by the police and the testimonies given, as they were mainly by interested parties.  With respect to application of Section 114 of the Evidence Act, the Court said, “Section 114 only allows the Court to presume facts which flow as a natural consequence of human nature. The Section cannot be stretched to altogether presume the guilt of the accused. The Trial Court in appreciation of circumstances accepted accused Niranjan living with the deceased, and that he had wanted to transfer the property to himself, as a proven fact. However, based on these facts, the Court has reached a finding on the guilt of the accused. We do not see how it can be presumed that a person having a relationship with another and having greed over their property can be assumed in the common flow of things to murder them to grab their property without any other incriminating evidence against them. Finding on the guilt of a person cannot be presumed by a court.”

Decision

Discussing the precedents on Death Sentence and the necessity of achieving balance between aggravating-mitigating circumstances while awarding Death penalty, the Court acquitted the appellant stating, “(…) the Court failed in believing that the whole prosecution case was based on circumstantial evidence and ‘residual doubt’ and presumption of innocence still existed in favour of the accused…”[State of Bihar v. Niranjan,  2020 SCC OnLine Pat 2112, decided on 11-11-2020]


Sakshi Shukla, Editorial Assistant has put this story together

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