Suspicion, howsoever grave, can't substitute proof In criminal trial: SC

To begin with, in a landmark judgment titled Devi Lal v State of Rajasthan in Criminal Appeal No(s). 148 of 2010 with Criminal Appeal No(s). 149 of 2010, the Supreme Court just recently on January 8, 2019 has dispelled all misconceived notions about suspicion and reiterated that, 'In a criminal trial, suspicion, howsoever grave, cannot substitute proof' while allowing the appeals filed by the two murder accused. It must be revealed here that Devi Lal and Babu Lal were convicted by the trial court after it found them guilty of murder of one Dharam Chand. It also must be underscored here that this conviction was mainly based on circumstantial evidence and also it took into account the extrajudicial confession made by accused Babu Lal to one Shambhu Singh.

Needless to say, the accused - Devi Lal and Babu Lal then approached the Apex Court challenging their conviction by trial court which was also affirmed by the High Court. Justice Ajay Rastogi while authoring this landmark judgment for himself, CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justice KM Joseph sets the ball rolling by observing in the very opening para of this landmark judgment that, 'Both the appellants, Babu Lal and Devi Lal are aggrieved by the affirmation of their conviction under Section 302 and other with the aid of Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced to life imprisonment under the impugned judgment dated 30th January, 2009, seek this Court’s intervention.'

To recapitulate, it is then pointed out in para 2 that, 'Brief facts of the case, as per prosecution, post-incident, are that on 8th February 1999 at 7.15 p.m. complainant Vijay Singh (PW-2) submitted a written report (Exhibit P-1) at Police Station, Nimbahera, informing that he and his cousin brother Dharam Chand (deceased) were living with their families in separate houses in village Binota. In the evening of 7th February, 1999 at 6.00 p.m. daughter of the deceased Dharam Chand informed him on telephone that her father, who had gone to Bhagwanpura on Motor Cycle, had not returned. The complainant, along with other neighbours, went to search deceased Dharam Chand on 8th February, 1999 and at village Bhagwanpura, outside the godown of brother deceased Dharam Chand, found his motorcycle but his whereabouts were not made known. On his written complaint, a missing person report (Exh. P-75) was lodged. The Investigating Officer, in the course of enquiry, made from Shambhu Singh (PW-3), revealed that on 7th February, 1999 accused Babu Lal had hired his jeep. Babu Lal and his labourers Logar and Bagdiram carried drum which contained wheat. The drum was alighted from the jeep on way near field of Logar, making Shambhu Singh to sit at the house of Logar and on excuse of responding to call of nature, Babu Lal, Logar and Bagdiram got away for about 1.30 hours. When they came back, the drum was not there. On inquiry by Shambhu Singh (PW-3), Babu Lal told that Logar and Bagdiram shall deliver it afterwards. On further inquiry, it revealed that on 5th February, 1999, hot altercations had taken place between Babu Lal and deceased Dharam Chand for some money transactions and on carrying such drum, Babu Lal carried some suspicion. During the course of search, it was found that from a dry well, bad colour was emitting. When freshly cut branches and leaves of the leak tree were removed, the dead body of the deceased Dharam Chand was found. On the basis of Exhibit P-73, formal FIR came to be registered on 11th February, 1999 at Police Station, Nimbahera.'

Going forward, it is then observed in para 3 that, 'After the investigation, charge-sheet was filed against the four accused persons namely, Babu Lal, Devi Lal, Keshu Ram @ Panchiya Meena and Logar Rawat holding accused Babu Lal guilty for the offence under Section 302 read with Section 34 and 120-B IP and appellant Devi Lal for the offence of Section 120-B IP, of hatching a conspiracy to commit murder.' It is then pointed out in para 4 that, 'The appeals preferred by both the appellants before the High Court came to be dismissed affirming their conviction and sentence vide judgment impugned dated 30th January, 2009.'

To be sure, it is then brought out in para 6 that, 'The case of the prosecution is based on circumstantial evidence. The circumstances which lead the trial Judge to hold the appellants guilty under Section 302 and 120B IP and confirmed by the High Court is primarily based on the evidence of complainant Vijay Singh (PW-2), Vandna (PW-5) and Uma Devi (PW-10), daughter and wife of the deceased and also relied upon the extra judicial confession made by the co-accused Babu Lal to Shambhu Singh (PW-3).'

Delving deeper, it is then brought out in para 7 that, 'At the outset, it may be noticed that neither in the initial complaint on which the missing stage after inquiry, when the FIR came to be registered (Exh. P-73), the name of appellant Devi Lal surfaced. Even in the statement of Vandna (PW-5), while recording statement under Section 164 CrP, (Exh. D-5), no such reference was made of any conspiracy having been hatched by Devi Lal, the accused appellant. In the testimony of PW-5 Vandna and PW-10 Uma Devi, it was deposed that accused Devi Lal came to the house on 5th February 1999 and wanted to purchase the half portion of Bada from the deceased Dharam Chand for a sum of Rs. 10,000/-. Devi Lal threatened the deceased to sell his Bada which he refused.'

It cannot be lost on us that it is then pointed out in para 8 that, 'As regards appellant Babu Lal, it was deposed by Vandna (PW-5) and Uma Devi (PW-10), that he was known to their family as Babu Lal used to take money from the deceased and to return the same. Deceased Dharam Chand lended Rs 50,000/- to accused Babu Lal, which had been reduced into writing in the ledger book. When deceased Dharam Chand went to take money from Babu Lal, he refused to return the same and started quarrelling. The deceased had informed this to Vandna (PW-5) and Uma Devi (PW-10). The money as demanded by the deceased led to suspicion of the commission of crime. But both the witnesses Vandna (PW-5) and Uma Devi (PW-10), in their cross-examination stated that they did not know when the accused Babu Lal had borrowed money from the deceased.'

As it turned out, it is then held in para 13 that, 'Without going into detailed scrutiny of the facts on record under consideration, the circumstances whih emerged and taken note of under the impugned judgment in itself gives a suspicion in completing the chain of commission of crime beyond doubt, being committed by the accused appellants.'

In short, it is then rightly spelt out in para 14 that, 'The classic enunciation of law pertaining to circumstantial evidence, its relevance and decisiveness, as a proof of charge of a criminal offence, is amongst others traceable decision of the Court in Sharad Birdhichand Sardha Vs. State of Maharashtra 1984(4) SCC 116.' The relevant excerpts from para 153 of the decision are then discussed in detail in this same para.

Interestingly enough, para 15 then elucidates that, 'It has further been considered by this Court in Sujit Biswas Vs. State of Assam 2013(12) SCC 406 and Raja alias Rajinder Vs. State of Haryana 2015 (11) SCC 43. It has been propounded that while scrutinising the circumstantial evidence, a Court has to evaluate it to ensure the chain of events is established clearly and completely to rule out any reasonable likelihood of innocence of the accused. The underlying principle is whether the chain is complete or not, indeed it would depend on the facts of each case emanating from the evidence and there cannot be a straight jacket formula which can be laid down for the purpose. But the circumstances adduced when considered collectively , it must lead only to the conclusion that there cannot be a person other than the accused who alone is the perpetrator of the crime alleged and the circumstances must establish the conclusive nature consistent only with the hypothesis of the guilt of the accused.'

More importantly, it is then very rightly pointed out in para 16 by the Apex Court while giving the benefit of doubt to the accused that, 'On an analysis of the overall fact situation in the instant case, and considering the chain of circumstantial evidence relied upon by the prosecution and noticed by the High Court in the impugned judgment, to prove the charge is visibly incomplete and incoherent to permit conviction of the appellants on the basis thereof without any trace of doubt. Though the materials on record hold some suspicion towards them, but the prosecution has failed to elevate its case from the realm of 'may be true' to the realm of 'must be true' as is indispensably required in law for conviction on a criminal charge. It is trite to state that in a criminal trial, suspicion, howsoever grave, cannot substitute proof.'

Furthermore, it is then held in para 17 that, 'That apart, in the case of circumstantial evidence, two views are possible on the case of record, one pointing to the guilt of the accused and the other his innocence. The accused is indeed entitled to have the benefit of one which is favourable to him. All the judicially laid parameters, defining the quality and content of the circumstantial evidence, bring home the guilt of the accused on a criminal charge, we find no difficulty to hold that the prosecution, in the case in hand, has failed to meet the same.'

Finally and most importantly, it is then held in the concluding para 18 that, 'In the given facts and circumstances, we are unable to sustain their conviction. The appellants are thus entitled to the benefit of doubt. Both the appeals succeed and are accordingly allowed. Appellant Devi Lal is already on bail. His bail bonds are discharged. Appellant Babu Lal who is in custody is directed to be released forthwith, if not required in any other case.'

All said and done, this landmark and laudable judgment by a three Judge Bench of the top court in which the serving CJI Ranjan Gogoi is also included serves to send out a very loud and clear message to all courts most unequivocally that, 'Suspicion, howsoever grave, can’t substitute proof in criminal trial.' It must be followed by all courts in letter and spirit. There should be no departure from it. Also, the benefit of doubt must go to the accused!


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Sanjeev Sirohi 
on 21 January 2019
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