‘False defence no ground to convict if chain of circumstantial evidence is incomplete’. 10 years after wife’s death, SC sets man free

Supreme Court: The bench of Ajay Rastogi and Abhay S. Oka*, JJ has held that when the chain of circumstantial evidence is not complete, falsity of the defence is no ground to convict the accused.

Background 

The ruling came in a case where the appellant was convicted under Sections 302 and 201 IPC for the death of his wife. The prosecution case was that on 18th November 2011, it was reported that the appellant’s wife died due to burn injuries. However, according to the post-mortem report, the cause of death was ‘asphyxia due to pressure around neck by hand and blunt substance’.

The appellant-accused’s case was that none of the witnesses except the official witnesses have supported the prosecution case and that the conviction of the appellant is based solely on the cause of death mentioned in the post-mortem report and that no other material has been relied upon by the Trial Court as well as High Court.

Submissions by the appellant’s counsel:

  • though post-mortem report was available on 18th November 2011, First Information Report was registered belatedly on 25th August 2012.
  • that when the incident constituting the alleged offence occurred, there were other members of the family of the appellant-accused present in the house.
  • the prosecution witnesses have deposed that the appellant and the deceased were leading a normal matrimonial life.
  • the mother of the deceased, has not supported prosecution. She stated in the deposition that the incident of fire took place when the deceased was boiling milk for her child. He pointed out that even PW No.5-a, Shri Mahesh Sah who gave a report of unnatural death on 18th November 2011 did not support the prosecution.

Submitting that a complete chain of events establishing the guilt of the appellant-accused has not been established, the counsel urged that the conviction of the appellant cannot be sustained and deserves to be set aside.

Submissions by State’s counsel:

  • the post-mortem report categorically stated that the cause of death was ‘asphyxia due to pressure around neck by hand and blunt substance’.
  • the burn injuries on the person of the deceased were not ante-mortem.
  • the appellant and the deceased were staying together under the same roof and therefore, Section 106 of the Evidence Act, 1872 will apply.
  • the burden was on the appellant-accused to explain how the death has occurred.

Hence, a chain of circumstances was established by the prosecution against the accused which supports only one hypothesis of the guilt of the appellant.

It was submitted that the failure of the appellant to discharge the burden on him under Section 106 of the Evidence Act is very crucial as the case is based on circumstantial evidence.

Analysis

The Court took note of the elaborate law laid down in Sharad Birdhichand Sarda v. State of Maharashtra, (1984) 4 SCC 116. Here are the relevant excerpts from the judgment:

Five golden principles (Panchsheel) which govern a case based only on circumstantial evidence

(1) the circumstances from which the conclusion of guilt is to be drawn should be fully established. There is not only a grammatical but a legal distinction between ‘may be proved’ and “must be or should be proved”. It is a primary principle that the accused must be and not merely may be guilty before a court can convict and the mental distance between ‘may be’ and ‘must be’ is long and divides vague conjectures from sure conclusions.

(2) 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,

(3) the circumstances should be of a conclusive nature and tendency,

(4) they should exclude every possible hypothesis except the one to be proved, and

(5) 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.”

When can a false explanation or a false defence be used as an additional link?

Before a false explanation can be used as additional link, the following essential conditions must be satisfied:

(1) various links in the chain of evidence led by the prosecution have been satisfactorily proved,

(2) the said circumstance points to the guilt of the accused with reasonable definiteness, and

(3) the circumstance is in proximity to the time and situation.

If these conditions are fulfilled only then a court can use a false explanation or a false defence as an additional link to lend an assurance to the court and not otherwise. However,

“… falsity of defence cannot take the place of proof of facts which the prosecution has to establish in order to succeed. A false plea can at best be considered as an additional circumstance, if other circumstances point unfailingly to the guilt of the accused.”

Applicability of Section 106 of the Evidence Act

Under Section 101 of the Evidence Act, whoever desires any Court to give a judgment as to a liability dependent on the existence of facts, he must prove that those facts exist. Therefore, the burden is always on the prosecution to bring home the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, Section 106 constitutes an exception to Section 101.

Section 106 of the Evidence Act will apply to those cases where the prosecution has succeeded in establishing the facts from which a reasonable inference can be drawn regarding the existence of certain other facts which are within the special knowledge of the accused. When the accused fails to offer proper explanation about the existence of said other facts, the Court can always draw an appropriate inference.

“When a case is resting on circumstantial evidence, if the accused fails to offer a reasonable explanation in discharge of burden placed on him by virtue of Section 106 of the Evidence Act, such a failure may provide an additional link to the chain of circumstances. In a case governed by circumstantial evidence, if the chain of circumstances which is required to be established by the prosecution is not established, the failure of the accused to discharge the burden under Section 106 of the Evidence Act is not relevant at all. When the chain is not complete, falsity of the defence is no ground to convict the accused.”

Ruling on facts

The Court noticed that neither the prosecution witnesses have deposed to that effect nor any other material has been placed on record to show that the relationship between the appellant and the deceased was strained in any manner. Moreover, the appellant was not the only person residing in the house where the incident took place and it is brought on record that the parents of the appellant were also present on the date of the incident in the house. The fact that other members of the family of the appellant were present showed that there could be another hypothesis which cannot be altogether excluded.

“Therefore, it can be said that the facts established do not rule out the existence of any other hypothesis. The facts established cannot be said to be consistent only with one hypothesis of the guilt of the appellant.”

Coming to the post-mortem report, the Court held that

“… only on the basis of post-mortem report, the appellant could not have been convicted of the offence punishable under Section 302 of IPC and consequently for the offence punishable under Section 201 of IPC.”

The Court, hence, acquitted the appellant from all the charges.

[Nagendra Sah v. State of Bihar, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 717, decided on 14.09.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice Abhay S. Oka

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