SUPREME COURT REITERATES THAT IN ORDER TO CONIVCT A PERSON, IT IS THE QUALITY OF EVIDENCE THAT MATTERS AND NOT THE QUANTITY
A Two Judge Bench of the Supreme Court presided by Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Dipankar Datta passed a Judgment dated 24.01.2023 in Munna Lal Vs. The State of Uttar Pradesh in Criminal Appeal No.490 of 2017 and other connected matters and observed that in case of murder, it is not necessary to insist upon a plurality of witnesses and that the oral evidence of a single witness, if found to be reliable and trustworthy, could lead to a conviction.
One, Mr. Narayan (Deceased), father of Mr. Ram Vilas, was murdered in the morning of 05.09.1985 around 10.00 AM. A written Complaint was lodged at about 12.10 PM on the same day, by Ram Vilas that led to registration of F.I.R. under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”) (Punishment for murder). Munna Lal, Sheo Lal, Babu Ram, and Kalika were accused of committing the said murder. The inquest proceedings were conducted by Ram Pal Sagar, Investigating Offer along with his team, when a bullet was recovered at the place of incident. Upon completion of investigation, charge-sheet under Section 302 IPC was filed against each of the four Accused.
Upon consideration of the evidence on record, the Court of IInd Additional Sessions Judge, Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in S.T. No.499 of 1985 (Sessions Court) vide Judgment dated 29-01-1986 held that the existence of motive, medical evidence and all other circumstances proved the case against the Accused. Further, the visual account of PW No.2 and PW No.3 was relied upon and consequently, the Judge sentenced the surviving Accused, viz., Munna Lal, Sheo Lal and Babu Ram to life imprisonment.
The Appellants moved an Appeal before the Allahabad High Court in Criminal Appeal No.539 of 1986 which was dismissed vide Judgment dated 09-07-2014 and the High Court further directed Munna Lal and Sheo Lal, who were on bail, to surrender before the Sessions Court. Aggrieved by the High Court Judgment dated 09-07-2014, Munna Lal and Sheo Lal applied for Special Leave to Appeal before the Supreme Court.
Whether the Sessions Court, on the basis of the materials before it, was justified in recording conviction and consequently, sentencing the Appellants to spend the rest of their lives in prison?
Supreme Court Observations:
1) The Hon’ble Supreme Court before embarking on the exercise of deciding the fate of the Appellants took note of the following principles which have evolved over the years and crystallized into ‘settled principles of law’.
(a) Section 134 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (Number of witnesses), enshrines the well-recognized maxim that evidence has to be weighed and not counted. In other words, it is the quality of evidence that matters and not the quantity. Similarly, even in a case of murder, it is not necessary to insist upon plurality of witnesses and that the oral evidence of a single witness, if found to be reliable and trustworthy, could lead to a conviction.
(b) Generally speaking, oral testimony may be classified into three categories, viz.:
(i) Wholly reliable;
(ii) Wholly unreliable;
(iii) Neither wholly reliable nor wholly unreliable.
The first two category of cases may not pose serious difficulty for the court in arriving at its conclusion(s). However, in the third category of cases, the court has to be circumspect and look for corroboration of any material particulars by reliable testimony, direct or circumstantial, as a requirement of the rule of prudence.
(c) A defective investigation is not always fatal to the prosecution, where ocular testimony is found credible and cogent. While in such a case the court has to be circumspect in evaluating the evidence; a faulty investigation cannot in all cases be a determinative factor to throw out a credible prosecution version.
(d) Non-examination of the Investigating Officer must result in prejudice to the accused; if no prejudice is caused, mere non-examination would not render the prosecution case fatal.
(e) Discrepancies do creep in, when a witness deposes in a natural manner after lapse of some time, and if such discrepancies are comparatively of a minor nature and do not go to the root of the prosecution story, then the same may not be given undue importance.
2) The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the present case, examined the evidence led by the Prosecution and refrained from giving primacy to the negligence of the Investigating Officer as well as to the omission or lapses resulting from the perfunctory investigation undertaken by him.
3) Therefore, while appreciating the oral evidence tendered by PW2 and PW-3, the Court gave the view that its conclusions would have been no different from those arrived at in the Judgments impugned but the Courts below did not engage their attention in certain vital factors.
4) The Apex Court further observed that the factor which cannot be totally brushed aside is the uncontroverted evidence of a continued enmity existing from 10 years preceding the alleged murder of Narayan by and between the two groups; it could be established that PW-2 nurtured personal ill-will towards the Appellants and the possibility of PW-2 having acted with intention to keep the Appellants away from legal proceedings as well as interference in property rights cannot be totally ruled out; hence, PW-2 being inimical to the Appellants, his testimony has to be taken with a pinch of salt and a deeper scrutiny of the other evidence on record has also been indeed called for bearing the settled principles, referred to above, in mind.
5) The Hon’ble Supreme Court also observed that what is of prime importance is that the circumstances as appearing from the record do not justify the presence of PW-3 at the place of occurrence. Therefore, the oral testimony of PW-2 and PW-3 is not free from doubt and their evidence not being of unimpeachable quality, the rule of prudence would demand a corroboration of their versions from other witnesses who, according to PW-2 and PW-3, were present at the place of occurrence and witnessed the murder of Narayan.
6) The Apex Court after assessing the evidence on record observed that the disturbing features in the process of investigation, have not weighed in the Court’s mind to give the benefit of doubt to the Appellants but on proper evaluation of the various facts and circumstances, it has transpired that there were reasons for which PW-2 might have falsely implicated the Appellants and also that PW-3 was not a wholly reliable witness.
7) Hence, the Supreme Court observed that there is a fair degree of uncertainty in the Prosecution story and the Session Court and the High Court appear to have somewhat been influenced by the oral testimony of PW-2 and PW-3, without taking into consideration the effect of the other attending circumstances, thereby warranting interference.
Thus, for the reasons aforesaid, the Apex Court allowed the Appeal filed by the Accused, as the charges of murder could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt; hence, the Appellants were held to be entitled to the benefit of doubt. The Sessions Court Judgment of Conviction and Order of Sentence dated 29-01-1986 was set aside; consequently, the High Court Judgment dated 09-07-2014, upholding the said conviction and sentence was also set aside.
The Indian Lawyer