India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday acquitted three men who had been given a death sentence and three others who had been awarded life imprisonment for the alleged murder of five members of a family and the rape of a woman and a minor.
A trial court in the state of Maharashtra had convicted all six and sentenced each of them to death by hanging in 2006. In March 2007, a two-judge bench of the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction and death sentence given to three accused and reduced the punishment meted out to the other convicts to imprisonment for life. All of the accused were convicted under Section 302 (murder) read with Section 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.
In 2009 a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court dismissed the appeals filed by the three death row convicts and reversed the High Court’s decision, thereby reinstating the capital punishment set to be given to the three other convicts. In October 2018 a three-judge bench of the court recalled the judgment delivered in 2009. The court recalled the orders dismissing the review petitions against the 2009 judgment. It restored the original criminal appeal of the three death row convicts, and directed that the appeal be heard again. The apex court also allowed the life imprisonment convicts to file an appeal against Bombay High Court judgment.
Tuesday’s decision, delivered by a three-judge bench comprising judges AK Sikri, Abdul Nazeer and MR Shah, saw the court criticizing the prosecution for a poorly conducted investigation. Lamenting the lack of forensic evidence, the bench observed, “Though the charge is of rape and murder, there is no forensic evidence corroborating the prosecution case.” The court ruled, “It is necessary that the evidence should be of a very high quality and satisfy the higher burden of proof,” given the potentially serious consequences a conviction will have for the accused.
“We are of the opinion that the omissions are major omissions and improvements which are fatal to the case of the prosecution and in any case, it creates reasonable doubt on the trustworthiness and the reliability of the prosecution witness,” the judgment read, in reference to irregularities in the prosecution’s case. The court held that the prosecution failed to prove the case against the accused beyond reasonable doubt. :Therefore, we have no other alternative, but to acquit the accused of the offenses for which they are convicted,” the judges said.
The bench, in an exercise of its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution of India, directed the Maharashtra government to compensate the acquitted individuals with 500,000 Indian Rupees each. “It has emerged that there was no fair investigation and fair trial, and the fundamental rights of the accused guaranteed under Articles 20 and 21 of the Constitution of India have been infringed,” the court ruled.