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Key Takeaways

  • The testimony of an eye witness is a part of oral statements which has been defined in Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act.
  • Eye witnesses are essential in the trial procedures as they help to deliver a reasonable and fair justice to the aggrieved party.
  • The Witness Protection Scheme, 2018 was finalized to ensure the safety and protection of the life of witnesses.
  • Oral evidence is susceptible to be weakened by documentary evidence.

Introduction

An eyewitness is a person who witnesses the act, fact or transaction and testifies to it. An eyewitness must be competent to appear and testify in court. An eyewitness’ statement is a part of the oral statement which has been defined in Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act.

Right to fair trial is a key facet in ensuring justice. It isa fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In Madhu Madhuranatha v. State of Karnataka , a witness is defined to be a person who has the ability to provide information which is reliable either in written or in oral form. Section 118 of the Indian Evidence Act also states that, “All persons shall be competent to testify unless the Court considers that they are prevented from understanding the questions put to them, or from giving rational answers to those questions, by tender years, extreme old age, disease, whether of body or mind, or any other cause of the same kind.”

An insane or intoxicated person cannot testify in the court even if he or she was the sole eyewitness of the incident. Being identified by an eyewitness can make or break a case. If the entirety of a case is dependent on a sole eyewitness, then a single identification by the eye witness will be enough to sustain the conviction.

What is the importance of an eyewitness?

Eye witnesses are of particular importance during trial procedures. They help to deliver reasonable and fair justice to the aggrieved party. It helps in building a strong case at court.

If the statements given by the eye witness are consistent with that of other witnesses, then it will be taken into consideration. This does not extend to minor variations. In PratapChauhan v. Ram Naik , it was held by the Supreme Court that evidence which is given by an eye witness cannot be ignored without scrutinizing it with proper cautions. There is also no set standard to identify whether a said reaction of the witness would make the testimony irrelevant.

In a case where the court isn’t entirely certain about the relation between the witness and the victim, the court is entitled to analyze the evidence at hand with scrutiny to determine whether a realistic value exists. It was held in Uttar Pradesh v. Jagdeo ,that mere connection of the eye witness with the deceased will not result in the testimony being discarded if the evidence is consistent.

What laws are in place for their protection?

In Mahender Chawla and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors , the Hon'ble Court specifically observed that one of the main reasons for the witnesses to turn hostile is that they are not accorded appropriate protection by the State. In National Human Rights Commission v. State of Gujarat and Ors. , the Hon'ble Apex Court duly acknowledged the importance of witness protection and highlighted the role to be played by the State in this regard. It has also been held by the Supreme Court in Vikas Roorkewala v. State of Uttarakhand & Ors. , that the various legislative measures which have been put for protecting the eye witnesses contribute towards a fair trial as an eye witness plays a crucial role in the criminal justice system. The Supreme Court also set forth guidelines in place for the protection of the eye witnesses. These guidelines have to be abided by the trial and other High Courts strictly. This includes making a close observation to determine if the witness is:

  1. under any possible threats,
  2. under any undue influence

and also, to check in cases where deferral is allowed and whether a possibility of delay in trial or non-availability of the witness exists.

These guidelines cannot be deferred by anybody. The purpose of following these guidelines is to ensure that no witnesses become subject to any kind of harassment and also, to ensure that the witnesses stay non-biased till their testimony is taken so as to ensure justice. Providing security to the witness will also ensure that they don’t end up making any false statements or getting influenced under fear. It is only through a fair trial that justice can be delivered.

The Witness Protection Scheme, 2018 was finalized by the Central Government, along with the National Legal Service Authority. The scheme was duly adopted by the Hon’ble Court vide Mahender Chawla v. Union of India . The purpose of this scheme was to ensure the safety and protection of the life of witnesses. This was done through varying services like providing a police escort to the witness up to the court room or using audio visual means for recording the testimony of some witnesses to ensure anonymity, providing a temporary residence in safe house, providing them with a new identity, and in extreme circumstances, relocating the witnesses.

This scheme categorizes the witnesses in 3 parts. The classification is done by way of level of threat that they pose. It also provides for a State Witness Protection Fund which is operated under the State Government or the Union Territory Government by the Department of Home.

What leverage does the testimony of an eyewitness have over other forms of evidence?

The admissibility of the testimony made by an eyewitness is based on the presumption that the witness must be speaking the truth as he is under an oath unless it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that the testimony given is untruthful and unreliable. It is necessary to make a close observation while making the statement of the witness admissible. It is the duty of the court to examine whether or not the eyewitness was under any undue influence while giving the evidence and whether or not any threat existed to the eyewitnesses among other things. It is of the most importance that the witness is not influenced in any manner so that an unbiased and truthful statement is given which would help in the delivery of fair judgment. However, oral evidence is susceptible to be weakened by documentary evidence. The reason behind this is that oral evidence has the chance of being inaccurate but documentary evidence has a higher chance of accuracy.

However, in Krishna Ram v. State of Rajasthan , it was held that the credibility and the truthfulness of the eyewitness statement are not affected if the statement has led to the acquittal of one accused and conviction of others. In Edward v. Inspector of Police , it was held that the statement of the sole eyewitness is reliable evidence even if it differs from the medical reports. In the case of Ram Kumar v. State of Delhi it was held that any evidence of an police official which is found reliable cannot be discarded on the ground that no independent witnesses has been examined by the prosecution.

Conclusion

Eyewitness testimony is a potent form of evidence for convicting an accused, however, it is subject to being biased or memory distortions. The basis of relying on an eye witness is purely that of assumption of truth. It isn’t entirely reliable as the eye witness is prone to threats, bias, influence etc. In many cases, depending on eye witnesses leads to wrongful convictions. While an eye witness does play a crucial role in trial procedure, especially in cases where the entire conviction is based on a sole eye witness, the evidentiary value of it also increases as it gets corroborated by statement of other witnesses, facts etc.

The DNA reports or forensic science reports are more reliable than the eyewitness testimonies as the eyewitness have a chance of being misleading, but the forensic reports have a much lesser chance of being inaccurate. Factors such as memory decay, lack of observance, mental shock, and trauma among other cannot be ignored as it is these factors which make the eye witness testimony unreliable leaving space for wrongful convictions and ultimately miscarriage of justice.


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