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Supreme Court sets death row convict free after 28 years of imprisonment

Convicted as Narayan of 20 years, Niranaram turns out to have been 12 years old at the time of the crime

The convict had been held guilty of murdering five women in 1994, and has been in detention since then. The court examined an assortment of official documents, all of which recorded his name to be different, and dizzyingly, none pointed to a uniform age. Finally, the court relied on his birth certificate, as per which he was twelve years old at the time of the commission of the offence.

IN a case full of twists and turns, the Supreme Court on Monday ordered the release of a man who has already spent more than 28 years under imprisonment, of which 25 years were spent on death row, but has now been found to have been a juvenile at the time of the commission of the offence. The convict was tried, convicted and sentenced as ‘Narayan’ and has now escaped the gallows as ‘Niranaram’.

The court held that, “Once the applicant has discharged his onus, in support of his claim of juvenility by producing the date of birth certificate from the school, the State had to come up with any compelling contradictory evidence to show that the record of his date of birth in the admission register was false.

A three-judge Bench comprising Justices K.M. Joseph, Aniruddha Bose and Hrishikesh Roy passed the judgment to this effect.

In 1994, the convict along with two other accomplices, had committed the murder of five women, (one of whom was pregnant) and two children. The offence took place in Pune in Maharashtra. The convict ‘Narayan’ was arrested on September 5, 1994, from his home village and has been in incarceration for more than 28 years.

The Bench was ruling on an application preferred by him under Section 9(2) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 requesting the court to hold that he, convicted for committing offences under Sections 302 (punishment for murder), 342 (punishment for wrongful confinement), 397 (robbery or dacoity, with attempt to cause death or grievous hurt) and 449 (house-trespass in order to commit offence punishable with death) read with  Sections 120B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) and 34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, was a juvenile on the date of commission of the offence.

‘Narayan’ was sentenced to death by the additional sessions judge, Pune on February 23, 1998. Both the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court sustained his conviction. The Supreme Court also dismissed his review petition on November 24, 2000. Interestingly, he never raised a plea of juvenility at the appellate level.

On August 14, 2005, ‘Narayan’, for the first time, requested a medical examination to determine his age, when the Prison Inspector General, Western Division, Pune went to meet him at Yerawada Central Prison. He was then taken to the Department of Forensic Science, BJ Medical College and Sassoon General Hospital, Pune. The age determination report by the Department of Forensic Medicine found that as on August 24, 2005, his age was more than 22 years but less than 40 years, including the margin of error.

It was in early 2006 that certain human rights groups espousing his cause wrote a letter to the then President of India requesting to cancel the death penalty awarded to him on the ground that he was a juvenile at the time of commission of the offence.

In the course of the examination of the letter which was sent to the President, which in turn was sent to the state government for its comment, it turned out that the medical superintendent, Sassoon Hospital, Pune was intimated by the applicant that he had studied at a government school at Jalabsar and his name in the school was Niranaram. This fact was recorded by the superintendent, Yerawada Central Jail, Pune in his letter dated January 19, 2007, addressed to the additional secretary, Home department, Maharashtra.

It was this letter that referred to ‘Narayan’ as ‘Niranaram’ for the first time. ‘Niranaram’ approached the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution representing himself as ‘Narayan @ Niranaram’ seeking the quashing of the punishment imposed on him.

In his petition, he relied upon a transfer certificate by the headmaster of the Rajakiya Adarsh Uccha Madhyamik Vidyalaya, Jalabsar, Shri Dungargarh on August 15, 2001, which reflected that he had joined the school in class first on April 1, 1986 and left from class third on May 15, 1989, and which recorded his date of birth as February 1, 1982. He also relied upon a family card issued by the Rajasthan government in 1989, recording his age to be of 12 years. In both these documents, the name of a Chetanram appears as the father of Niranaram.

The Supreme Court, however, dismissed his Article 32 petition on August 12, 2013. By the date of birth reflected in these certificates, the age of the applicant on the date of commission of offence would have been 12 years and 6 months.

Undeterred, ‘Niranaram’ again knocked on the door of the Supreme Court on October 30, 2018 by filing an application under the 2015 Act. On January 29, 2019, a three-judge Bench referred the matter to the principal district and sessions judge, Pune to decide the juvenility of the applicant keeping in view the provisions of Section 9(2) of the 2015 Act. Thereafter began the inquiry into the age of ‘Niranaram’.

‘Narayan’ gets his original name

The applicant relied upon a series of documents where his father’s name has been shown as Chetanram. These include three documents originating from the government school, Rajkiya Adarsh Uccha Madhyamik Vidyala, Jalabsar. The tehsildar of Shri Dungargarh, Bikaner had also issued a certificate dated August 19, 2009, to the effect that Niranaram was a bona fide resident of Jalabsar and the son of Chetanram. Chetanram’s name also appears as the father of the applicant in the latter’s Other Backward Classes certificate. A certificate by Gauradevi, the then sarpanch of Udrasar gram panchayat, Shri Dungargarh also recorded that Narayan Chaudhary was the same person as Niranaram. Later on, Gauradevi and her son had disowned issuing any such certificate, but the inquiry officer matched the signature of Gauradevi appearing in the said certificate with her signature in another document and found them to be identical.

In the Pariwar Card of Chetanram, ‘Anada’, ‘Mukhram’ and ‘Nirana’ had been referred to as his sons.

In such circumstances, in absence of any contrary evidence we accept the finding in the Inquiry Report given by the Principal District and Sessions Judge, Pune that Niranaram has to be said to be another name of “Narayan”. Our opinion on this point would not vary even if we reject the certificate of the Sarpanch. That certificate plays a supportive role in determining the name of the applicant. Moreover, in all these documents, Jalabsar has been shown as the village of which Chetanram and his family were residents, and this was the place from where he was arrested. In our opinion, the applicant’s original name was Niranaram and the applicant has discharged his part of onus to establish that it is he who has been tried and convicted as Narayan. We accept the finding of the Inquiring Judge on this point,” the Bench held.

The Bench also rejected the objection of the state government against the application seeking claim of juvenility on the ground of delay. Citing judicial precedents, the Bench held that it was settled law that a claim of juvenility may be raised before any court which shall be recognised at any stage even after the final disposal of the case.

It also held that on a juvenility plea, if a writ petition was dismissed in limine, such an order would not foreclose the option of an accused (or a convict) to make a plea of juvenility under Section 9(2) of the 2015 Act.

Claim of juvenility sustained 

The Bench accepted the findings of the inquiry judge that Niranaram was a juvenile at the time of the commission of offence. The documents on which the inquiry judge relied were:

  • The school register
  • The certificate of date of birth of Niranaram issued by the school authorities on January 30, 2019
  • The transfer certificate dated August 15, 2001. This was not a certificate of transfer showing Niranaram’s shifting to another school, but this certificate recorded that he had left from Class III on May 15, 1989.
  • Transfer certificate of the applicant’s brother Anada/Andaram/Anadaram/Anandaram (the spelling varied in different documents) dated September 19, 2003 which showed the date of birth of Andaram as April 4, 1980.

The Bench noted that all these documents had their origin in the admission register of the school, the original of which the Bench itself had seen. It also noted that apart from the documents from the school, a family card, issued in 1989 showed Niranaram’s age as 12 years. But the Bench ignored this card because there were signatures of two other authorities.

Four other dates reflecting different ages 

The Bench also dealt with four documents reflecting different ages of Niranaram. The first was the chargesheet on the strength of which he had been tried, convicted and sentenced, as per which he was 20 years old in 1994. But the source of disclosure of this age had not been told to the court, except that the applicant’s age was given by his counsel before the high court at the stage of the appeal hearing.

Next was the electoral roll as per which his age at the time of commission of offence would be 19 years. The electoral roll was referred to in the police report dated March 2, 2019, but did not appear to have been considered by the inquiring judge.

The third source was the family card, in which it was mentioned that he was 12 years in 1989 or 1991/1992. That would have taken his year of birth to 1977­–79, and that would make him 15 to 17 years of age at the time of commission of offence. The Bench discarded the latter document for having the signatures of two different authorities.

Reliance on birth certificate

The Bench went by the date of a birth certificate issued by the Rajkiya Adarsh Uccha Madhaymik Vidyalaya, Jalabsar, tehsil Shri Dungargarh, district, Bikaner dated January 39, 2019 for determining the age of the applicant at the time of commission of the offence of which he has been convicted. Going by that certificate, his age at the time of commission of offence was 12 years and 6 months.

In so far as the inconsistent dates of birth mentioned in the other documents were concerned, the Bench ruled none of them was specified to be taken into consideration for undertaking the process of age determination as laid down in Section 94(2) of the 2015 Act.

Once the applicant has discharged his onus, in support of his claim of juvenility by producing the date of birth certificate from the school, the State had to come up with any compelling contradictory evidence to show that the recordal of his date of birth in the admission register was false. The State, in this case, has not come up with any such compelling evidence which would render such a certificate to be unreliable or false. The State and the complainant have sought to disprove the applicant’s case on the basis of materials disclosed by him only, apart from the electoral roll. Here, we cannot indulge in any guesswork to doubt the entry in the school register. No evidence has been led to contradict the basis of the age of the applicant reflected in the aforesaid document. The certificate of date of birth as evidence of age [has] been provided in the statute itself,” the Bench ruled.

The Bench also rejected the argument that the inquiry officer did not follow proper procedure while holding the inquiry. It held that Section 9(2) of the 2015 did not prescribe any scrupulous procedure for making the inquiry or following the trial procedure, as stipulated in the Code of Civil Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.

The Inquiring Judge examined each of the documents upon ascertaining the stand of the [Director-General of Police] and also the advocate representing the applicant. In the application filed before us, an extract from the school register was annexed which showed the applicant’s date of birth as 1st February 1982. Before the Inquiring Judge, we find that in addition to the documents annexed to the application, a certificate of date of birth issued by the school authority was also furnished by the applicant. The latter was issued on the basis of school register but this certificate was dated 30th January 2019,” the Bench noted.

It has also crossed the mind of the Bench whether a boy of 12 years could commit such a gruesome crime. The Bench said it was shocked but it could not apply speculation of this nature to cloud its adjudication process.

We possess no knowledge of child psychology or criminology to take into account this factor while examining the report of the Inquiring Judge. Moreover, the age of the applicant revealed in the ossification test keeps the age of the applicant as claimed by him, within the range specified in the report. The said test was conducted in the year 2005, and his age was determined in the range of 22 to 40 years. If we take 22 years as his age in 2005, then his year of birth would have been 1983. That would broadly correspond to the date of birth contained in the admission register,” the Bench underscored.

Click here to view the Supreme Court’s full judgment.