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Beyond Confessions: A Legal Deconstruction of the Supreme Court’s Verdict on Circumstantial Evidence

Introduction

On 21.09.2023, the Hon’ble Supreme Court (‘SC’) delivered a landmark verdict in the case of Rajesh & Anr. v. State of Madhya Pradesh[i], thereby overturning the convictions of three individuals, including Rajesh Yadav, charged with offences under ss. 302, 376(2)(f), and 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’). In this case, the SC invoked the conditions of s. 27 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (‘IEA’), establishing an exception to the general inadmissibility of confessions made to the police.

The SC held that a confession made to the police prior to formal arrest and accusation is not admissible under s. 27 of the IEA. Additionally, the SC emphasized the relevance of the recovery of material objects linked to the crime, such as a dead body, or a weapon, as a crucial factor for the admissibility of confessions under the aforementioned provision. This decision contributes to the jurisprudential landscape by clarifying the admissibility criteria for confessions in criminal proceedings, particularly in cases where the recovery of tangible evidence plays a pivotal role.

Brief Facts

  • In March 2013, this case unfolded with the disappearance and subsequent death of Ajit Pal, a 15-year-old. His mother reported him missing and received ransom calls demanding money for his release. Subsequent investigations led the police to Sh. Om Prakash Yadav, a neighbour acquainted with the minor’s family’s financial situation. Sh. Rajesh Yadav, the primary accused, confessed to murdering the minor and guided the police to a dead body in a well.

  • Sh. Rajesh Yadav and Sh. Raja Yadav were arrested and confessed to killing the minor with a knife after administering alcohol. The police recovered the alleged murder weapon, the liquor bottle, and the body bag used to dispose of the deceased. Sh. Brijesh Yadav, brother of Sh. Rajesh disclosed the location of the mobile phones used for the ransom calls.

  • Blood-stained clothes identified as belonging to Sh. Raja were discovered in his dairy shop, and subsequently Sh. Om Prakash Yadav was also arrested, and his clothes were stained with Sh. Rajesh’s blood were recovered. DNA analysis confirmed Sh. Rajesh Yadav’s connection to the crime through hair clenched in the deceased’s fist. The autopsy report indicated death by blood loss from a cut-throat.

  • Despite the prosecution’s argument that Sh. Raja and Sh. Rajesh were the last individuals to see the deceased alive, the Hon’ble Madhya Pradesh High Court (‘HC’) dismissed this Last Seen Theory. The trial court and the HC sentenced Sh. Om Prakash Yadav to life imprisonment and Sh. Raja Yadav and Sh. Rajesh Yadav to death. Subsequently, all three convicts appealed to the SC, challenging the prosecution’s reliance on circumstantial evidence, and asserting their innocence in the kidnapping and murder of the deceased minor.

Decision

  • In setting aside, the convictions of the three accused persons, the SC noted significant deficiencies and gaps in the prosecution’s case. The reliance on circumstantial evidence had failed to establish a clear and unbroken chain of events pointing conclusively towards the guilt of the accused persons. The SC pointed out various inconsistencies in the timeline of events, varying ransom amounts, absence of eyewitnesses to the kidnapping or murder, and ambiguity about the time of the deceased’s disappearance, all of which considerably weakened the prosecution’s narrative.

  • The SC also raised questions about the confessions made before the formal arrest and during police custody, highlighting procedural irregularities in searches, recording panchnamas, and evidence seizure. Doubts were also cast on DNA evidence linking the accused to the crime due to improbable scenarios and potential evidence tampering by the police.

  • Furthermore, the SC criticized the prosecution for failing to establish a clear connection between the mobile numbers used for ransom calls and the accused persons, emphasizing the police’s laxity in investigating the actual owner of the relevant mobile number. Inconsistent witness testimonies and the introduction of new details during cross-examination further undermined the credibility of the prosecution’s version.

  • The SC pointed out sheer disregard for due procedure, including the use of tracking dogs after the body’s recovery, and questioned the ambiguous nature of the kidnapper’s demands if ransom was the motive. The SC also questioned the timing of the accused persons’ custody, highlighting a slipshod investigation with initial failures in searches, and questioning the authenticity of later discoveries.

  • The SC condemned the police for tailoring their investigation in this case, neglecting essential norms, leaving leads unchecked, and failing to establish a foolproof chain of events. Concluding that the prosecution’s case had numerous weak links and loopholes, the SC justified the acquittal of the accused persons due to the benefit of doubt. Emphasis was placed on the lack of valid reasons for imposing capital punishment, as the same required a degree of proof for guilt beyond reasonable doubt in a case based on circumstantial evidence.

Analysis

This recent SC ruling holds substantial significance by highlighting the crucial need for a thorough evaluation of evidence and adherence to proper procedures in criminal cases. The SC meticulously scrutinized the prosecution’s case, uncovering glaring flaws and gaps in the presentation of evidence. Stressing the importance of establishing a coherent and unbroken chain of events to prove guilt, the SC questioned the reliability of confessions made prior to formal arrest and scrutinized the transparency of police procedures, including evidence collection and DNA analysis.

This judgment underscores the risks associated with relying on circumstantial evidence and emphasizes the necessity for a meticulous examination of the prosecution’s narrative, taking into account surrounding circumstances and procedural compliance. It is in this judgment that the SC also expressed deep concern over subpar police investigation standards and referred to persistent issues outlined in reports dating back to 2003. The SC underscored the importance of a thorough and fair pursuit of truth in criminal investigations, criticizing inefficiency, rudeness, intimidation, and suppression of evidence by the police. The SC noted that despite prior recommendations for improvement, such concerns persist till date.

The ruling reinforces the significance of the concept of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in Indian criminal law. The SC reiterated that an accused should not be deemed guilty based on assumptions or solely on the prosecution’s narrative. The demanding standard of proof required for conviction necessitates a comprehensive examination of evidence. The SC’s scrutiny of procedural lapses emphasizes the evolving legal landscape, which not only demands substantive evidence but also insists on adherence to legal protocols, ensuring a fair and transparent criminal justice system. This decision stands as a milestone in upholding the principles of justice, fairness, and the evolving standards of proof in Indian criminal law.


End Note:

[i] 2023 SCC Online SC 1202


Authored by Jitin Bharadwaj, Advocate at Metalegal Advocates. The views expressed are personal and do not constitute legal opinion.

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