In a recent landmark judgment on October 30, the Supreme Court, presided over by Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia, made a significant observation regarding the use of statements made to the police by witnesses as evidence during trial, as exemplified in the case of Birbal Nath vs State of Rajasthan and ors.
The court asserted that such statements have restricted applicability in a court of law. While acknowledging that statements provided to the police during an investigation under Section 161 are considered “previous statements” under Section 145 of the Evidence Act and can be employed to cross-examine a witness, this use is circumscribed. It is intended solely for the purpose of “contradicting” the witness. The bench clarified that even if the defense succeeds in contradicting a witness, it does not automatically imply a complete discrediting of that witness.
The context for these observations arose from a 2007 decision by the Rajasthan High Court, which utilized a witness’s prior statement to the police to discredit the witness. In this particular case, the High Court acquitted certain individuals of murder charges and, instead, convicted them of lesser offenses, such as rioting and causing hurt.
The High Court based its decision on the belief that the attack allegedly carried out by the accused was not premeditated but was, instead, the result of a clash between two semi-armed groups. This conclusion was reached in part because both sides sustained injuries during the altercation.
Challenging this verdict, the Rajasthan government and the complainant brought the matter before the Supreme Court. The apex court found fault with the High Court’s assessment, particularly its magnification of the “simple, doubtful, and totally unexplained injuries” suffered by the accused. The Supreme Court criticized the High Court for diminishing the gravity of the brutal and murderous attack carried out by the accused, which had resulted in the death of one of the victims.
Consequently, the Supreme Court held that the High Court’s approach, both in terms of factual analysis and legal interpretation, was erroneous. As a result, the appeals were allowed, and the High Court’s verdict was set aside. The accused, who had been out on bail, were ordered to surrender.
However, the convictions were altered from murder to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, leading to a revised prison sentence of seven years of rigorous imprisonment.
Advocate Charu Mathur represented the victims, while Senior Advocate Manish Singhvi appeared on behalf of the Rajasthan government, and Senior Advocate Ramakrishan Veeraraghavan represented the accused-respondents.