- A person/suspect, usually least guilty, who is picked up with reference to a crime, or who is taken by the police for the purpose of giving evidence against his own colleagues is called as an accomplice or an approver.
- An accomplice’s evidence is also not free from criticism. It is of utmost importance to corroborate the testimonies of the accomplice and not blindly take into account his/her words.
What/who is an accomplice? Why is evidence important? Are an accomplice’s words authentic enough or trustworthy enough to be considered as evidence?
An ‘Accomplice’, in layman’s language, is defined as someone who helps another in the commission of a crime. One who voluntarily and intentionally participates with another in a crime by assisting/helping or encouraging within the commission of the crime or by failing to prevent it.
An ‘Accomplice Witness’ refers to a witness to a criminal offense who, either as principal, accomplice, or accessory, was connected with the crime by unlawful act or omission on his/her part, transpiring either before, at time of, or after commission of the offense, and whether or not he/she was present and took part within the crime.
Lastly, ‘Evidence’ is the available body of facts/information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.
Sir Bentham, eminent English Jurist, defines evidence as any matter of fact, the effect or tendency of which is, to supply within the mind a persuasion, affirmative or dis-affirmative of the existence of another matter of fact.
Word “evidence” is from a Latin word “evidens” or “evidere”, which suggests clearly; to form clear sight; to get clearly; to form plainly certain; to ascertain; to prove.
The term ‘Evidence’ within the popular sense means by which certain facts are established to the satisfaction of persons enquiring into them, but narrowed down by certain legal rules contrived to secure as far as possible its sufficiency and credibility.
Evidence is a concept that can break or make a case. Like it’s so famously said courts run on evidence. It is the side that proves and shows the most amount of evidence that proves their side of the story to be true, that wins the case.
Law of evidence plays a crucial role within the criminal justice system. It governs the presentation of facts and therefore the process of proving guilt by the prosecution or one’s innocence within the adversarial system. Application of the law of evidence within the criminal justice system isnt only important for integrity of the whole judiciary but also safeguard the rights of the accused.
The Accomplice Witness is delt in Section 133 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. It says that an accomplice will be a competent witness only against an accused person; and a conviction isn’t illegal merely because it proceeds upon the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.
An accomplice can be categorised into four main categories namely: -
- Principle of First Degree - A person, who actually commits the crime
- Principle of Second Degree - A person who abets or aids the commission of crime.
- Accessory before the Fact/ crime - Those persons, who abet the commission of a crime. They do not participate in commission of crime but make necessary arrangements.
- Accessory after the Fact/ crime - Who receive or protect or comfort the person who committed the crime. In simple words, person who help the accused in escaping from punishment.
It is commonly seen that most crimes are committed in secluded places where there would be no witnesses, and hence there would be no one to testify regarding these offenses, additionally it wouldn’t be possible for the police to gather sufficient evidence to prove said crime and the guilt of the accused.
In such cases the emphasis then goes to the suspects, in such a scenario the police offers a deal to the arrested suspect, who usually would be least guilty, by offering to him an assurance that if he is inclined to divulge all information relating to the commission of the crime and give evidence against his own colleagues, he/she will be pardoned.
Such a person is known as an accomplice or an approver.
An accomplice may be a competent witness provided he's not a co accused under trial within the same case. But such competency which has been conferred on him by a process of law doesn't divest him of the character of an accused. An accomplice by accepting a pardon under Section 306 CrPC (Code of Criminal procedure,1973) becomes a competent witness and should as the other witnesses be examined on oath.
WHO IS NOT AN ACCOMPLICE
Now that we know and understand who an accomplice is, it is imperative to also understand under what scenarios or situations a person is not considered as an accomplice.
- When a person is under a death threat or under any other form of pressure which he/she is unable to resist and hence due to such a pressure/threat commits a crime along with the others though he/she is not willing to participate. In such a circumstance he/she would be the victim and not an accomplice,
- When a person witnesses a crime, but due to fear or terror does not give out information regarding the same to anyone else. Is such a case too the person will not be an accomplice.
- Persons like detectives, paid ‘informants’ and ‘trap or decoy witnesses’ are not accomplice’s and the court in such circumstances take their testimonies as uncorroborated evidence if it is satisfied of their truthfulness (Prakash Chand v. State)
COMPETENCY OF AN ACCOMPLICE AS A WITNESS
According to section 114 (b) of the evidence act, an accomplice is considered unworthy of credit, unless he is corroborated in material particulars. Which means that when an accomplice makes a testimony, it is not blindly seen as reliable evidence for a conviction, rather it has to be verified with other material evidence.
However, section 114 of the Evidence Act also describes two scenarios in which it doesn’t apply, namely:
- If said person is of the highest character, and he/she is tried for causing a person’s death by an act of negligence in arranging certain machinery and there is another person involved, of equally good character, who was also involved in the arrangement and describes precisely the series of events and admits and explains the common carelessness.
- A, B and C three criminals have committed a crime and are captured on the spot of the crime and are separated/kept apart from one another. If it so happens that all of them describes the incident in a manner in which D is implicated and in such a manner as to render previous concert highly improbable.
In Section 133 of the Evidence Act there is a clear authorisation provided to the courts regarding the conviction on the corroborated testimony of an accomplice.
Though one must keep in mind that as the witness himself/herself is a criminal, his/her statement may not be as trustworthy as one would presume and so in such situations the courts would be guided by the illustrations appended to Section 114 of the Evidence Act, which basically states that is necessary the courts should presume that he is unreliable until his/her statements are supported or verified by independent evidence.
Thus, we can say that while Section 133 lays down a rule of law, Section 114 (b) lays down a rule of prudence
It must be noted that the evidence of an accomplice must always be tested or verified, this is known as corroboration. If an ‘uncorroborated testimony’ of an accomplice is accepted then the following are some dangers that can occur:
- The evidence may be tainted and would not carry the same respect as that of a law-abiding citizen.
- As he/she shows of being unfaithful to his companions then he/she could also be unfaithful to the court and make moves in order to move the guilt from himself/herself or worse weave a story which may implicate an innocent bystander.
SUPPORTING CASE LAWS
- In R. v. Baskerville there were guiding rules laid down with regards to corroboration, which were:
- Firstly, it is not necessary that there should be independent confirmation, in every detail of the crime rather a related confirmation is sufficient as long as it to a material circumstance of the case.
- Secondly, the conformation by independent evidence must be of the identity of the accused. Thus, there must be confirmation that not only has the crime that was committed but that the accused committed it.
- Thirdly, the corroboration may be by an independent testimony.
- Lastly, the corroboration need not be direct evidence but may be circumstantial.
- In Rameshwar vs. State of Rajasthan the supreme court confirmed the above-mentioned rules.
- And in Haroon Haji v. State of Maharashtra, Ravinder Singh v. State of Haryana and Kannan Singh v. State of T.N., the Supreme Court reaffirmed the decision of Rameshwar vs. State of Rajasthan.
- In Suresh Chandra Bahri v. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court re-emphasised the need for raising the presumptions that the approver evidence is untrustworthy unless corroborated and so in M.O. Shamsuddin v. State of Kerala
Therefore, the courts should be guarded before accepting the accomplice’s evidence for corroborating. The discretion of the court upon which the rule of corroboration rests, must be exercised in a sound and reasonable manner.
- In C.R. Mehta v. State of Maharashtra, it was held that the complainant minister cannot be equated with position of an accomplice and as a witness the quality of his evidence as also his general integrity being of high order conviction of the accused are often based even on his uncorroborated evidence.
- In the case of Chandan v. Emperor, the court while deciding the case defined the term accomplice and stated that he is the one who is involved with the offender or offenders “in the commission of a criminal offence or the one who voluntarily helps other offenders within the commission of a criminal offense”. The court further stated that accomplice includes ‘parties criminals’ that mean a partner in crime.
- R.K.Dalmia v. Delhi Administration, the Supreme Court while defining the term accomplice said that an accomplice is a person who participates in the commission of a crime.
- In Jagannath v. Emperor, the court stated that if a person is associated with a criminal act or who is connected with the commission of the offence, he is known as an accomplice. Further, the Supreme Court of India within the case Shankar v. State of Tamil Nadu held that at the time when the accomplice converts into an approver he will be used as a prosecution witness. But the evidence given by the approver doesn’t have any evidentiary value until its proven that the evidence is reliable a second the testimony given by him has to be corroborated.
- In the case of Ismail v. Emperor, it was held that a person is considered as an accomplice under both the first and the second degree.
- The testimony of an accomplice is required to be corroborated by independent evidence therefore statements recorded as per section 164 of CRPC of the accomplice cannot be used for corroboration, because it is stated within the case of Bhuboni Sahu v. the King that an accomplice cannot corroborate himself.
Any testimony provided is always subjected to scrutiny in terms of its authenticity and so without question the testimony provided by an accomplice would, understandably, be even more vulnerable to criticism. It is only when it is verified under the general rules laid down to guide the corroboration of such a testimony by some material facts of evidence as mentioned in section 114 (b) of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 does it get approved, but even then, it must also be in conformity with Section 133 of the Indian Evidence Act too.
This extended prosses is mandatory due to the fear of the testimony being tainted. We must always keep in mind that an accomplice is not any other regular citizen and so he/she can not be treated as one too and hence these measures are imperial when it comes to finding and providing of justice, finding the truth and in terms of safeguarding society.
I would like to conclude by saying thatthe Courts in India have found a perfect balance by harmonising Sections 114(b) and 133 together. The blend of which lay down the guidelines of accomplice evidence which clearly defines the law with no scope of ambiguity, and so we now have a more clear and accurate way of getting closer to justice with the help of accomplices.