Supreme Court sets aside death penalty awarded to three accused; blasts trial court, Allahabad HC for manner in which they dealt with case

THE Supreme Court, in a judgment earlier today, set aside the death penalty awarded to three persons by an Assistant Sessions Judge (ASJ) in Bulandshahr in January 2016 and confirmed by the Allahabad High Court in May 2018, and excoriated the courts for their law and incorrect application of the law, as well as disregard of the basic principles of criminal law, while awarding the death penalty to the three appellants/accused persons.

The appellants had been convicted under Sections 302 (Punishment for murder) and 34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code by the ASJ for killing six of their family members, including two minor children, in January 2014 due to a long-standing family dispute. The conviction was made primarily on the basis of the testimonies of two witnesses.

However, the apex court scrutinized their testimonies and concluded that they could not be considered entirely reliable to base an order of conviction on. It categorized them as ‘neither wholly reliable nor wholly unreliable’, and held that “a greater degree of care and caution would be required and a corroboration in material particulars by reliable testimony, direct or circumstantial, would be necessary to pass an order of conviction”.

The Supreme Court briskly perused the other material facts and circumstances of the case relied on by the prosecution before reaching the conclusion that all of them were insufficient to present a water-tight case against the appellants. The court considered that an alleged material informer had neither been named nor examined by the prosecution, no reliance could be placed on the alleged recovery of weapons due to the manner in which it was made and the fact that no public witness was examined to support the arrest-cum-recovery memo, and a great shadow of doubt was cast on genuineness of the recovery of the blood-stained clothes alleged to have been worn by the accused while committing the crime.

The court then considered the possible motive of the appellants and established that the prosecution had “utterly failed” to establish any motive with regard to two of the appellants, and also failed to prove any strong motive in relation to the third appellant.

The court also went on to point out several other inconsistencies and lacunae in the prosecution case. According to the court, the non-examination of any independent witnesses, the fact that the reports by the fingerprint expert and the dog squad were not placed on record, contradictions and holes in the testimonies of the two primary prosecution witnesses, all cast aspersions on the veracity of the prosecution’s case.

The Supreme Court then criticized the trial court and high court thus:

“[W]e are at pains to observe the manner in which the present case has been dealt with by the trial court as well as by the High Court, particularly, when the trial court awarded death penalty to the accused and the High Court confirmed it. The trial court and the High Court were expected to exercise a greater degree of scrutiny, care and circumspection while directing the accused to be hanged till death.

The Supreme Court even reproduced an extract of the ASJ’s judgment, expressed shock at its finding and censured his decision-making thus:

“The narration makes for an interesting reading as a story. However, all the observations are nothing but conjectures and surmises, without there being any evidentiary support to them. It is really surprising, as to how the Additional Sessions Judge could have dealt with 59 the present case in such a casual manner when he was considering the question of life and death of four accused.“

The Supreme Court does not even spare the Allahabad High Court, going to reproduce an extract of its judgment, and lambasting it as contrary to well-settled principles of evidence law for incorrectly placing the burden of proof on the accused before the prosecution had proved its case beyond reasonable doubt. Another extract is described as “fall[ing] in the ambit of conjectures and surmises”. Yet another finding of the high court, as per the Supreme Court, “makes for an interesting reading and is foreign to criminal jurisprudence”.

The Supreme Court concludes its judgment by remarking that the prosecution had “utterly failed” to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, and that the conviction and death sentence imposed on the accused was “totally unsustainable in law”, and directing the release of the appellants.

Click here to read the Supreme Court’s judgment.

The Leaflet