Aghast, says Supreme Court as it finds holes in case against death-row convict
The Supreme Court bench faulted the investigators, prosecutors, trial judges and even the Patna high court for not spotting the discrepancies in the rape and murder case
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Monday set aside an order by the Patna high court that confirmed the death sentence awarded to a man convicted for the rape and murder of his 10-year-old neighbour in 2015, after the three-judge bench spotted serious discrepancies in the investigation and trial of the case and expressed strong displeasure at the conduct of investigators, prosecutor and judges who decided the case.
If these contradictions had gone unnoticed by the top court, the bench said, “it would have led to a serious miscarriage of justice”.
The judges remitted the case back to the Patna high court for a fresh decision, which should keep in mind “the serious lapses on the part of the defence in not proving major contradictions in the form of material omissions surfacing from the oral evidence of the prosecution witnesses”.
“Free and fair trial is sine-qua-non of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. If the criminal trial is not free and fair, then the confidence of the public in the judicial fairness of a judge and the justice delivery system would be shaken. Denial to fair trial is as much injustice to the accused as to the victim and the society,” the bench comprising justices BR Gavai, JB Pardiwala and PK Mishra said.
The bench also told the high court to request a seasoned criminal lawyer to appear on behalf of the appellant, Munna Pandey, who was named as the accused along with his elder brother’s brother-in-law. Since this person was a minor at the time of the crime, he was separately tried as a juvenile, held guilty and sentenced to three years imprisonment.
Pandey, who was charged with the rape and murder of the young girl in his house, was convicted by the trial court in 2017 and the Patna high court rejected his appeal and confirmed the death sentence in 2018.
Munna Pandey has been in prison since 2015.
“Having regard to the fact that an innocent girl of 10 years was lured, raped and brutally murdered, we looked into the entire record very closely. Our mind got clouded with suspicion. Ultimately, we noticed something very shocking. The shocking aspect, if would have gone unnoticed at our end too, then it would have led to a serious miscarriage of justice,” the three-judge bench said on an appeal by the death-row convict who was represented in the top court by senior advocate Aditya Sondhi.
The bench said as it read the first information report (FIR) and the police statements of the witnesses, it was “aghast” since it was clear that the accused had failed to get a fair trial. The police did not get the accused’s medical examination conducted and did not send his undergarments for forensic examination, something that proved fatal to the prosecution case since the case was based on circumstantial evidence where medical evidence became vital. Even the victim’s vaginal swabs sent for examination were not produced during the trial.
Witnesses who initially gave statements that they had seen the accused’s juvenile brother-in-law at the scene of the crime made improvements in their statements during the trial and neither the public prosecutor nor the trial court confronted them for changing stand.
“This court has condemned the passive role played by the judges and emphasized the importance and legal duty of a judge to take an active role in the proceedings in order to find the truth to administer justice and to prevent the truth from becoming a casualty. A judge is also duty-bound to act with impartiality and before he gives an opinion or sits to decide the issues between the parties, he should be sure that there is no bias against or for either of the parties to the lis,” the top court said
The bench also pointed to the investigating officer’s statement during cross-examination that her senior officers instructed her not to get the forensic report, wondering who the senior officers were. should have been a subject matter of inquiry by both, the State as well as the trial court,” the judgment noted, adding, “We are at pains to state that it is a very serious flaw on the part of the investigating officer and that too in such a serious matter.”
Neither the defence counsel nor the public prosecutor nor the presiding officer of the trial court and unfortunately even the high court thought fit to look into the aforesaid aspect of the matter and try to reach to the truth.”
The court said that for justice to be done, truth must prevail. “Truth is the soul of justice. The sole idea of criminal justice system is to see that justice is done. Justice will be said to be done when no innocent person is punished and the guilty person is not allowed to go scot-free.”
The bench observed that the high court completely overlooked these aspects and that if the High Court had taken little pains to look into the record, it could have taken recourse to Section 367 of the CrPC and sought additional inquiry into the case
The 68-page judgment noted that fair trial is possible only when the court takes active interest and elicits all relevant information and material necessary so as to find out the truth for achieving the ultimate goal of dispensing justice with all fairness and impartiality to both parties.