The conviction of five of the seven accused, including Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren, in the Shashi Nath Jha murder case marks a welcome departure from the recent trend of witnesses turning hostile in high profile cases, including those in the Jessica Lall murder case.
In fact, the Law Commission had suggested that in all offences punishable with 10 or more years of imprisonment, statements of prosecution witnesses should be recorded under Section 164 of Criminal Procedure Code to tackle the hostile witness menace.
Soren's case offers a solution to the issue, which attracted the attention of the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India, the media and the civil society in the recent past.
None of the total 46 material prosecution witnesses turned hostile despite the usual 'threat and inducement' tactics applied by the influential accused, as the CBI had plugged all the loopholes in the initial stages of the investigation itself.
Instead of the usual practice of recording the statements of prosecution witnesses under Section 161 of CrPC, Investigating Officer VK Pandey got the statements of six key witnesses recorded before magistrates under Section 164 of CrPC to ensure that they did not succumb to pressure from the accused.
These included star witnesses Charu Oraon, Sudarshan Soni and Gautam Sharma, Jha's mother Priyamvada Devi and daughters Kavita and Preeti. This way the CBI sealed the fate of the accused much before they could plan their defence strategy.
The testimony of Oraon, who participated in the drink party along with the victim and some other accused in the last week of May 1994 at the house of Nand Kishore Mehta alias Nandu at Village Tikra Toli near Ranchi, proved to be very crucial to the case.
Oraon stood by his statement under Section 164 of CrPC that he witnessed Nandu killing Jha.
Sharma deposed that he saw Jha going to Nandu's house on the fateful May 1994 evening while Soni testified that he witnessed Nandu, Pashupati Nath Mehta and some others placing Jha's body in a white Ambassador car.
Similarly, the testimony of the family members of Jha was very important for proving the motive of the murder and the agency did not leave any loopholes on this front too.
With Jha's murder and the motive behind it having been proved by these six witnesses, Additional Sessions Judge BR Kedia took the help of forensic evidence, circumstantial evidence and the conduct of the accused only to substantiate the conclusion of guilt he had reached about the five accused.
A statement under Section 161 of CrPC is recorded by the investigating agency - police, CBI, vigilance bureau etc, while one under Section 164 is recorded before a magistrate.
During the trial, if a witness denies the statement made to the police, he/she is said to have turned hostile and the witness could not be proceeded against as a statement made to the police is not admissible under the Indian Evidence Act.
On the contrary, if the statement has been recorded under Section 164 of CrPC, the witness is bound to testify accordingly during the trial, as any deviation from the statement made before a magistrate would result into perjury.
Soren's case shows how simple precautions taken by the Investigating Officer in the initial stages of the investigation could seal the fate of the accused and save them from embarrassment resulting out of the unwarranted acquittal of accused in high profile cases.