Acquitted after 13 yrs, life begins at 36 for former wrongly convicted medical student
The acquittal came 13 years after he was wrongly convicted by a trial court for murdering his girlfriend.
In 2003, Chandresh Marskole, then 18, was the pride of his tribal Gond community. His father worked as a mechanic at a public sector copper mine in Madhya Pradesh’s Balaghat, but he had become the first to clear pre-medical tests in his family, gaining admission to Bhopal’s Gandhi Medical College.
By 2008, he was in his fifth and final year, in love with a girl he intended to marry, and on the cusp of becoming a doctor. But in September that year, everything changed.
His girlfriend, 23-year-old Shruti Hill, was found dead near Panchmarhi. He was arrested, tried, and a year later, convicted for her murder. Thirteen years later, on May 4, a two-judge bench of the Madhya Pradesh high court acquitted Marskole for the crime, ordering that ₹42 lakh should be paid to him as compensation for what they called a “manipulative and preconceived investigation followed by a malicious prosecution”.
On Monday evening, at 7.30 pm, a bespectacled 36-year-old Marskole, in a creased white shirt with red stripes, walked out of Bhopal Central Jail. He had spent 4,745 days in prison.
In his hand, he carried a large grocery bag with the contents of what his life was reduced to in prison -- clothes, a few personal belongings, and some medical science books. “I had faith in our justice system, and always believed I would be proved innocent. So I kept studying in jail, spent time assisting medical staff in jail, so I can clear the three papers that remain for my MBBS degree. That is what my life inside has been,” Marskole told HT.
The man and the murder
Marskole was born in 1985 in the village of Doke in Balaghat, the second son of Jugram Marskole. There was not a lot of money to go around, and Marskole went to the Kendriya Vidyalaya in Malajhkhand, operated for the families of employees who worked in the mine. Very early in life, he decided he wanted to be a doctor.
“He would study at least 12 hours a day for his medical entrance. When he cleared the medical exam in 2003, he was on cloud nine and the whole village came to congratulate us. People would tell us that he made the whole Gond community proud,” Jugram Marskole said.
Marskole gained entry to the prestigious Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal, and began living in the college hostel. In early 2008, he met Hill, and they fell in love.
“Shruti was from Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh. After she failed her Class 12 examinations, she moved to Panchmarhi where her mother was a school principal. The family used to visit Bhopal for treatment, and it is here she met Marskole. The romance grew, and he would introduce her as his girlfriend. Hill’s family knew about the relationship, and by July, she had moved into his hostel room,” a batchmate of Marskole’s said.
In a statement with the Madhya Pradesh Police recorded by the court, Shruti’s father, George Hill, is recorded as in the know about the relationship, and that a wedding was on the horizon.
But on September 20, 2008, a group of policemen from the Koh-e-Fiza police station entered the Gandhi Medical College, and detained Marskole. They were acting on a written complaint by fellow GMC resident doctor Dr Hemant Verma, who had called and written to the then Inspector General of Police Shailendra Srivastava, alleging that Hill had gone missing. Verma told the IG that Marskole had beseeched him to let him borrow his Toyota Qualis vehicle for a trip to Hoshangabad on September 19, to which he acquiesced, sending his driver with him. Upon their return, the driver, identified as Ram Prasad, allegedly told him that Marskole carried what seemed to be a heavy piece of bedding in boot of the car, made him drive to Panchmarhi, and when the driver was relieving himself, dropped the bedding into the ravine of the Denwa Darshan Mazhar.
Hill’s body was recovered from the spot, a case of murder was registered on September 24, with Marskole formally arrested and charged with murder on September 25. In July 2009, Marskole was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Through the trial, Marskole’s advocates argued that there was no motive for the killing, and that the case was trumped up because he and Verma had an inimical relationship. As a counter theory, they alleged that Verma committed the murder, and then used his influence with Srivastava to implicate Marskole — all the while insisting that Marskole was innocent.
Thirteen years later, the court concurred by giving Marskole his freedom.
The high court verdict
Issued on May 4, the second paragraph of a 78-page judgment by justices Atul Sreedharan and Sunita Yadav, acquitting Marskole and ordering compensation said: “For reasons given in this judgment, the case reveals a sordid saga of manipulative and preconceived investigation followed by a malicious prosecution, where the police have investigated the case with the sole purpose of falsely implicating the appellant and perhaps, deliberately protecting a prosecution witness who may have been the actual culprit.”
Through the judgment, the court poked a number of holes in the police theory, including the fact that there were only two prime witnesses in the case, Verma and the driver Ram Prasad, neither of whom were eyewitnesses to the murder.
“He was detained by the police before the body was recovered and the FIR was registered just on the basis of a statement by Verma. He was in police custody for five days before the FIR was even registered,” Marskole’s advocate HR Naidu said on Monday.
The court also found that Verma said he had travelled to Indore on September 19, 2008, but had not been questioned as to why he gave his vehicle to Marskole on the same day. While the prosecution’s version of events have only two people in the Qualis traveling to Panchmarhi, the court said that officials at the Panchmarhi Cantonment Board toll station put on record that there were four people in the vehicle, and the police failed to explain why.
“There were other important aspects. Sperm was found from the undergarments of the woman and the bedding, but these were not sent by the police for forensic analysis,” Naidu said.
The court also noted that the couple informed their families that the two intended to marry, and that a mangalsutra was recovered from Hill’s belongings. The judgment further said that the conduct of the police was malicious, with “the intention of securing the conviction of the appellant for an offence he did not commit, and perhaps, for shielding Dr Hemant Varma whose involvement in this offence is strongly suspected though there is no material to hold affirmatively against him as he was not on trial. The proximity between Dr Hemant Varma and the then IG Bhopal Mr Shailendra Shrivastava, and the fact that Dr Hemant Varma’s involvement in the case was far more than that of an innocent bystander… the investigation ought to have been done by a neutral agency like the Central Bureau of Investigation in the first place.”
In the section of the order where it asks for ₹42 lakh to be paid in compensation to Marskole, the order said, “The appellant in this case, a Gond tribal, who with much difficulty, thanks to the provision for affirmative action in the Constitution, made it to a State-run medical college and was on the verge of becoming a full-fledged doctor, a support for his family, and a source of inspiration for his community. However, on account of this case, his entire life has been thrown into disarray. He has spent over four thousand seven hundred and forty days in prison, first as an undertrial and thereafter as a convict… we hold that the appellant is eligible for compensation on account of the violation of his fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”
Speaking to the media after the judgment, Hemant Verma defended himself, and told reporters: “When my driver informed me about something being thrown from the car, I checked with the warden about the girl staying with him and she was found missing. Like a responsible citizen, I informed the police. I had nothing to do with the case.”
Srivastava, who retired as special DGP, said, “I had no relationship with Verma. All police officers have contact numbers in the public domain and he got my number and informed me. I instructed Koh-e-Fiza police station to investigate the matter.”
The state government advocate Piyush Bhatnagar said, “We presented the case before the honourable high court with all evidence and facts. Now, the state government will decide the next move in the matter.”
Bhopal’s police commissioner Makrand Deoskar said, “The advocate general has informed us about the judgment. We intend to take legal opinion and move the Supreme Court against it.” Asked if the case will be reopened for investigation after the court’s observations, Deoskar said, “We will first challenge the judgment and then act accordingly. If the court asks us to reinvestigate the case, we will do so.”
The wait for his release
For his friends and family, Marskole’s release has brought relief, but also a deep sense of sadness about a life that could have been. Dr Avinash Thakur, his batchmate, now employed with the forensic science department at the Gandhi Medical College said, “He was the friendliest person in our batch, and a good sportsperson. Perhaps that love for sports gave him the spirit to fight and keep his sanity.”
For the Marskole family, these 13 years have been full of uncomfortable questions and financial distress.
“We are a middle-class family, and the legal fees were prohibitive. There were difficulties but my other son is an engineer, and he managed the expenses. We knew from day one that Chandresh was innocent. After my retirement, I returned to my village of Doke and it was difficult for us to face people and tell them our son was innocent. But I am proud that he never lost hope.”
The acquittal, however, has left a loose end, with little clarity on the version of events that led to the murder of Hill -- and another family that has been torn asunder.
Her uncle GP Hill, who lives in Jagdalpur, said, “Shruti’s death changed everything. After she passed away, her mother and brother died too. Her father George Hill and another brother Varun moved away to Korba, and snapped all ties with the rest of the family. Nobody knows where they are. On my part, we will always want justice for Shruti.”
Marskole is aware that a probable battle awaits him in the Supreme Court. “I know there is a fight that will have to continue,” he said. “But right now, all I want to do is go home.”
(With inputs from Monika Pandey in Jabalpur)