Supreme Court: The Division Bench of Hemant Gupta and Vikram Nath*, JJ., reversed the impugned judgments of the Punjab and Haryana High Court and the Trial Court of convicting the appellant for murder on the basis of circumstantial evidence.
Noting that there were many broken links in the chain of evidence and the prosecution could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Casting a doubt on the prosecution version, the Court remarked,
“The milk which is said to be adulterated with the poison was taken out from the refrigerator, transferred into a pan for boiling, and thereafter given to the deceased. If it actually had organophosphorus in it the smell would have filled up the room. The deceased being a healthy woman aged 45 years would not have consumed it if the pungent smell was coming from the milk. Even the informant did not sense any foul smell from the milk while boiling it.”
The prosecution case was that one Kuldeep Kaur, wife of the informant died after consuming the milk bought from the appellant, Rajbir Singh. The informant submitted that the appellant had borrowed Rs. 1 lakh from him and he and his wife were demanding that money from him. Therefore, on account of a grudge, he poisoned the milk in order to eliminate his family.
The Trial Court held that the prosecution had proved the death was caused by poisoning and that there was a motive to commit the said offence in order to save the appellant from returning the loan of Rs. 1 lakh taken from the informant. The Trial Court noted that the chemical analysis of the boiled milk consumed by the deceased, the unboiled milk, the container 18 in which the milk was kept, and the glass in which the milk was tendered, all contained organophosphorus, the poisonous substance. The second chemical report also reflected that there was the same substance organophosphorus in the parts of the organs (viscera) of the deceased sent for analysis.
Hence, the Trial Court convicted the appellant under Section 302 of Penal Code 1860 and sentenced him to undergo rigorous imprisonment for life and pay a fine of Rs.1,000. In appeal, the Punjab & Haryana High Court upheld the conviction.
Broken Chain of Evidence
The Court noted that the Trial Court proceeded on the premise that the appellant had not denied the execution of the pronote while discussing the motive which was not correct as the appellant in his statement under section 313 CrPC had specifically denied not only borrowing of the money but also that he never executed the pronote.
Further, the Trial Court did not take into consideration the time gap from the alleged time of collecting the milk from the appellant to the time it was administered and further the time the samples were collected. It also did not give any importance to the post-mortem report and the statement of Dr. Avtar Singh who had conducted the autopsy.
Considering the aforementioned, the Court culled out the following factors to rule that both the courts below committed an error in recording conviction:
According to the appellant, the amount was due to him from the informant and that he had been falsely implicated to deprive him of recovering the same from the informant. Hence, a case of false implication cannot be ruled out.
Reliance placed upon the pronote and the receipt was also not proved as neither the original pronote was produced nor any attesting witness was examined.
The time between the collection of milk from the appellant and the time when it was consumed by the deceased was about five hours. Similarly, the time after consumption of milk and when the Investigating Officer recovered and took into possession of the sample of milk and the utensils had a gap of about 24 hours. Hence, the chances of mixing poison during this period cannot be ruled out.
The use of compound organophosphorus has a homicidal purpose because of its extremely strong pungent smell which aspect had not received due attention by the Trial Court. Interestingly, this smell could not be sensed by the informant, his son, and also the deceased.
Further, Dr. Avtar Singh who had conducted the autopsy had clearly stated that he did not find any smell of organophosphorus coming out of the body; neither did he see any change in the colour of nails as also in the body, which would have been a common symptom in the case of poisoning. This may lead to an inference that death could have been caused by some other reason but not poisoning.
Relying on Sharad Birdhichand Sarda v. State of Maharashtra, (1984) 4 SCC 116, the Court observed that in a case of circumstantial evidence, it is also well settled that suspicion, howsoever strong it may be, cannot replace proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Manipulation of Forensic Reports
The Court noted a grave discrepancy in the laboratory reports. The prosecution submitted that the sample was received in the laboratory on 22-09-2000, whereas as per the two reports, it was received by the Assistant Chemical Examiner, Dr. Sandeep Kakkar, on 22-11-2000 from one Dr. O.P. Goel after his suspension, not in a sealed form, but as an open case. The Court observed,
“This note ‘This opened case, received by me from Dr. O.P. Goel on 22.11.2000 after his suspension.’ is typed out in both the reports after an overwriting /cutting is made by using alphabet “X” continuously.”
The laboratory report dated 31-01-2001 mentioned that there were three sealed jars in the sealed parcel which contained parts of organs. Whereas as per the post-mortem report and the statement of Dr. Avtar Singh, four sealed packets were sent, three containing parts of organs, and one containing the saline solution. The result referred to presence of the organophosphorus compound in the three sealed jars and it also refers to no poison found in the contents of fourth jar.
Similarly, the other laboratory report dated 05-02-2001 of the Assistant Chemical Examiner, Dr. Sandeep Kakkar, with respect to milk, boiled and unboiled and the utensils also had a similar cutting, and a note attached to that it was received as an open case from Dr. O.P. Goel on 22-11-2000 after his suspension. Hence, the Court pointed out the following:
That samples were not handed over to the Assistant Chemical Examiner who had to conduct the analysis in a sealed form.
The cutting, and a fresh note regarding parcels being open also creates a doubt.
Chances of tampering with the samples could not be ruled out.
In the above backdrop, the Court concluded that the chain of evidence has many missing and weak links, and none of the essential ingredients to record conviction in a case of circumstantial evidence; especially in the poisoning case were made out. The Court remarked,
“The Investigation Officer admits of having made no effort to find out as to whether or not the appellant was in possession of the poisonous substance said to be mixed in the milk. The Courts below have proceeded on the assumption that organophosphorous is available in every household.”
Hence, holding that the prosecution had not established the charge beyond reasonable doubt so as to record conviction under Section 302 of the Penal Code, 1860, the Court extended benefit of doubt to the appellant. The appeal was allowed, the judgments of the High Court and the Trial Court were set aside, and the appellant was acquitted.
[Rajbir Singh v. State of Punjab, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1090, decided on 24-08-2022]
*Judgment by: Justice Vikram Nath
*Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together.