Supreme Court| No stereotypical assumption that where death occurs after a lapse of time, the offence is of culpable homicide

Supreme Court: In a criminal appeal against the judgment and order of Chhattisgarh High Court, wherein the Court has affirmed the conviction recorded, and the sentence imposed, the division bench of Krishna Murari and S. Ravindra Bhat*, JJ. held that there is no infirmity in the impugned judgment, as there can be no stereotypical assumption or formula that where death occurs after a lapse of some time, the injuries (which might have caused the death), the offence is one of culpable homicide. Every case has its unique fact situation. However, what is important is the nature of injury, and whether it is sufficient in the ordinary course to lead to death.

In the case at hand, the accused persons and the deceased were cousins. One afternoon the accused reached the place and attacked him. As serious head injuries were involved, the deceased was operated, but could not survive and died. The post-mortem report stated that death was caused by injuries sustained by the deceased on the head. The police registered a case under Section 302 read with 34 Penal Code (‘IPC') against all accused person based on a first information report (‘FIR') lodged by the deceased's daughter.

The issue was whether the accused are guilty of the offence of murder, punishable under Section 302 IPC, or whether they are criminally liable under the less severe Section 304, IPC.

The Court said that the nature of the attack by the accused persons and the quality of eyewitness testimony of prosecution witnesses cannot be doubted and opined that the circumstance that most of the witnesses were related to the deceased does not per se exclude their testimony. The test of credibility or reliability when applied, is fully satisfied in respect of the strength of their testimonies.

Further, the Court said that there is no explanation on the part of the accused persons as to why the daughter of the deceased (witness) should depose falsely; nor is there any explanation as to how she could have received her injuries. Also, it opined that all the material aspects of the factual accusations against the accused persons and how they attacked the deceased in an unprovoked manner, cannot be doubted.

Placing reliance on Virsa Singh v. State of Punjab, 1958 SCR 1495, wherein it was held that the prosecution must prove the following facts before it can bring a case under Section 300 ‘thirdly':

  • It must establish, quite objectively, that a bodily injury is present;

  • The nature of the injury must be proved.

  • It must be proved that there was an intention to inflict that particular injury and it was not accidental or unintentional or that some other kind of injury was intended.

Once these three elements are proved to be present, the enquiry proceeds further, and lastly it must be proved that the injury of the type just described, made up of the three elements set out above was sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course of nature. This part of the enquiry is purely objective and inferential and has nothing to do with the intention of the offender.

The Court said that therefore, the question in the present case is whether the injury caused due to the attack is one which falls within the description of Section 300 ‘thirdly' or if it falls within the mischief of Section 300 ‘fourthly'. The requirement of Section 300 ‘thirdly' is fulfilled, if the prosecution proves that the accused inflicted an injury which would been sufficient to have resulted in death of the victim. The determinative fact would be the intention to cause such injury and what was the degree of probability (gravest, medium, or the lowest degree) of death which determines whether the crime is culpable homicide or murder.

The Court said that there is no difficulty in accepting that the accused persons were aggressors, and they attacked the deceased, with axes; and the deceased was unarmed. Further, the deceased was not able to record his statement; he was never discharged and died in the hospital, after 20 days. Lastly, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem stated that the injuries were caused by a hard and blunt object, and death of the deceased was due to cardiorespiratory failure as a result of multiple injuries on his body and their complications. Apart from the head, there were several other injuries, in the form of abrasions, contusions on the elbow, the lower back, fracture of rib cage, etc.

The question then is, was there a “sudden quarrel” between the deceased and the accused persons so that the case would not be murder, but culpable homicide, in terms of Exception 4.

The Court said that the testimonies of the two important eyewitnesses establish that when the deceased was levelling the septic tank on his property, the accused persons started abusing him; he asked them not to. Then accused persons, who were in the adjacent property, climbed the wall, entered the deceased's house, and attacked him with axes. These facts do not constitute a “sudden quarrel”, given that the accused persons abused the deceased, in an unprovoked manner, and then they went to where he was, armed with axes, and assaulted him. Even if it is assumed that there was a sudden fight, it cannot be said that the accused failed to act in a cruel manner or did not take undue advantage as they were armed, which shows pre-meditation on their part. Moreover, they both attacked the deceased on the head, which is a vital part of the body, thus taking undue advantage of their situation.

Further, the Court said that this case is not covered by the first exception to Section 300, i.e., that the accused did what they were accused of because of their loss of self-control, on account of a grave and sudden provocation. Apart from a long-standing pre-existing dispute, what caused “sudden” provocation to the accused has not been shown by them. Neither did they lead any evidence to fall within Exception 1, nor did the evidence on record substantiate such a contention.

The Court took note of the standard of reasonableness for applying the test of “grave and sudden” provocation given in K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra, 1962 Supp (1) SCR 567 and said that while there were pre-existing disputes of some vintage, between the accused persons and the deceased, there is nothing to show that they had been aggravated. It is also not clear whether the deceased said anything to the accused which triggered their ire, leading to loss of self-control as to result in “grave and sudden provocation”.

Further, after taking note of Om Parkash v. State of Punjab, (1992) 4 SCC 212 said that as the deceased died 20 days after the attack, this lapse time shows that the injuries were not sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course of nature. However, such a lapse of time would not per se constitute a determinative factor as to diminish the offender's liability from the offence of murder to that of culpable homicide, not amounting to murder.

Moreover, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem clearly deposed that death was caused due to cardiorespiratory failures, as a result of the injuries inflicted upon the deceased. Thus, the injuries and the death were closely and directly linked.

[Prasad Pradhan v. State of Chhattisgarh, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 81, decided on 24-01-2023]

*Judgment by: Justice Ravindra Bhat

*Apoorva Goel, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief

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