Don't bank on hostile witnesses: that's the message going out to all high-profile accused following Sanjeev Nanda's conviction in the BMW hit-and-run case. Increasingly, courts are taking into account relevant portions of otherwise 'unreliable' witnesses' testimonies to do justice.
The trend started after Delhi High Court, in December 2006, convicted three of the accused in the Jessica Lall murder case. The trial court had acquitted all the eight persons charged in connection with the case, including the main accused Manu Sharma, son of a former MP.
While the key witnesses, including actor Shyan Munshi, had turned hostile, the high court bench headed by Justice R.S. Sodhi culled out incriminating portions of their testimonies to overturn the acquittals."The statements of flip-flopping witnesses need not be knocked off as a whole. Parts of them can be relied upon provided they are corroborated by other witnesses or other material evidence," Sodhi, who has retired and is now a practising lawyer in the Supreme Court, told Hindustan Times.
As Sodhi's bench initiated perjury proceedings against 29 witnesses, it sent out a strong message to all sessions judges hearing high-profile cases. The result: Delhi has witnessed a string of high profile convictions in the last two years.
The Priyadarshini Mattoo case (the accused is son of an IPS officer and a lawyer himself), the Nitish Katara case (the accused, Vikas Yadav, is son of former Rajya Sabha MP D.P. Yadav), the Shivani Bhatnagar case (the accused, R.K. Sharma, is an IPS officer) are notable examples. Even the alleged tampering of crucial court documents in the Uphaar Cinema fire case could not save well-known builders, Sushil and Gopal Ansal, as they too were found guilty and later released on bail.
Wily witnesses, meanwhile, have adopted new ways to turn hostile without attracting punishment for perjury. By failing to appear in court despite numerous summons or repeatedly changing their testimonies, they try to discredit themselves in the eyes of the court. Sunil Kulkarni in the BMW case is a classic example.
In the Nitish Katara murder case, Bharti Yadav, a key prosecution witness and sister of the main accused, turned hostile. By claiming she was not in love, she tried to knock down the motive cited for the murder. But the trial court, while convicting the Yadavs, held that Bharti had said enough to establish the motive.
In the Phoolan Devi murder case also, her personal assistant Kalicharan retracted his statement in which he had admitted to seeing the faces of the assailants at the time of the incident. Deposing before the court, Kalicharan said he was not able to see their faces as they were masked. However, when the court warned him that he could face perjury charges for changing his statement, Kalicharan said he had only done the police's bidding. It remains to be seen what the court does with this witness.