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Why the December 16 trial may remain an exception

The death penalty pronounced in the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on December 16 has triggered an intense debate on the merits or demerits of capital punishment. Shivani Singh writes.

columns Updated: Sep 16, 2013 03:13 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Delhi gangrape verdict,Delhi gangrape case,Mukesh Kumar

The death penalty pronounced in the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on December 16 has triggered an intense debate on the merits or demerits of capital punishment. But there is unanimity that the case was handled efficiently.

The police force that failed to detect the crime while it took place, tried to redeem itself by catching all the six accused within days. Pressured by angry citizen protests and under sharp media glare, forensic evidence was collected deftly and processed fast. The chargesheet, prepared by the then police chief himself, was filed within 17 days.

The public prosecutors hired were among the best and, bypassing the hugely overburdened court system, the case was heard on a daily basis. In nine months, we had a verdict. This should be the standard operating procedure for all criminal cases. But it remains an exception.

The fast-track court in Saket that handed down death penalty to the gang rape accused could secure conviction only in three out of the 23 cases it has been handling since January this year. Twenty cases fell flat because the chargesheets were weak, the evidence poor and the complainants retracted.

Modelled after the British system, our jurisprudence’s primary concern is to protect the innocent rather than to punish the guilty. This means our judiciary is not obliged to achieve a conviction rate of above 98 per cent like their Russian and Japanese counterparts. But we cannot blame fair trial or our criminal laws for failing to achieve a conviction rate that will deter criminals. The problem lies somewhere else.

Usually, a case is weakened much before it reaches the prosecution stage. An average Delhi cop is still insensitive to a wide range of crimes, including those against women, and incapable of sophisticated handling of evidence. Often the evidence collected during initial investigators is not considered admissible in the court. Then, there is little coordination between among the investigating officers, whose prime concern is to somehow file chargesheets within the 90-day deadline, and public prosecutors before hearings.

Following the fatal gang rape in Delhi on December 16, the government tried to reform the system by introducing stricter penalties, better-defined laws on sexual assaults, putting all rape cases in fast-track courts and fixing police’s responsibility in registration and investigation of such cases.

As a result, reports of rape have increased from 433 in the first eight months of 2012 to 1036 in the corresponding period this year. While more cases are being registered, few are being followed up by swift and deft investigation. But the police are not the only to blame.

At present, there are at least 9,000 cases, some as old as from 2006, stuck in various stages of investigation and trials because the samples of evidence sent for forensic examination have not been tested and analysed. The police have just two labs in Delhi and badly need at least four such facilities to handle almost 500 forensic samples from various crimes reported every month.

The fast-track courts carry their own baggage. With huge backlogs, these are not exclusive courts and often hear multiple cases at the same time. There were no fresh appointments and judges for these courts are picked up from the existing pool. The court hearing the December 16 case was so burdened with the existing cases that it could hold the daily hearing only after 2 pm.

Since December 16, the system pulled out all stops to ensure speedy justice in a high-profile case that shocked the nation. But it is simply not equipped to consistently meet that benchmark. Without police and judicial reforms, the familiar story of delay and denial of justice will continue. It is perhaps too much to ask for since we can’t even set up two forensic labs in the capital.

First Published: Sep 16, 2013 01:41 IST