Wrongful Convictions

SYNOPSIS

Wrongful conviction is the miscarriage of justice, wherein, a person is convicted for an offence which they never committed in actuality. It is primarily caused because of improper working of law enforcement agencies, but can also be credited to several other factors such as a ‘punitive' culture in the state, misconduct on part of judiciary, poor defense and tampering of evidences, among others. It isn't out of place to mention about the grave consequences which the party, who is wrongfully convicted, has to face because of such conviction, both in terms of reputation and finance. To prevent such an unjustified conviction, the Constitution of India, and several other Statutes have laid down provisions for fair and transparent working of the judicial machinery, while also giving the wrongfully convicted person to have his locus standi and to prove his innocence.

WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS AND ITS CAUSES

In simplified terms, a wrongful conviction is such a conviction, wherein, a person, who is otherwise innocent, has been convicted for an offence which they never committed by a competent court. The Duhaim's law dictionary defines people, who have been wrongfully convicted, as “persons who are in fact innocent but who have been wrongly convicted by a jury or other court of law.” Such unjustified convictions are usually caused when the Court presiding over the case fails to consider certain crucial facts or evidences presented by the defending party. In a case, the Supreme Court, observed that there is a laxity with which the authorities throw citizens into prison. On other instances it is the failure on part of the counsel, representing the accused, to present the crucial facts and/or points of law before the Court. In India, for instance, the accused is entitled to be represented by a Public Prosecutor free of cost, in case he cannot afford an advocate of his own. However, the prosecutors themselves are so overburdened with such plethora of cases, that, despite their best efforts, they fail to do justice in each of their cases. In other instances, the unfair practice of giving laxity in clients' case, by his lawyer, in return for some consideration supersedes the moral sense of justice. Such declining sense of morals is also seen in witnesses who either decide to abstain from giving correct testimony in Court or even go to the extent of giving a false testimony against the otherwise innocent accused, to watch him fall for the lacunae in the system and be punished for an act which he never committed. The Supreme Court in a case, held that “lack of judicial approach, non-application of mind by the prosecution and the courts and inappropriate consideration of important evidence amounts to perversity which can give rise to grave miscarriage of justice.”

Now there are some cases where reports of various forensic tests prove to be crucial points in the accused's defense. However, such evidences aren't immune to tampering either and their manipulation, either internally by the agency or by external influence, is considered a star-marked cause for wrongful conviction. The Supreme Court in the case of State of Madhya Pradesh v. Dal Singh &Ors, observed that “if the court while adjudicating upon a dispute, approaches and tests the evidence on patently illegal scale, such findings of the court would be recorded erroneous and perverse and will result in miscarriage of justice.” It isn't out of place to mention about the “muscle power” used by “people of influence (such as politicians)” to influence the working of law enforcing agencies such as Police, CBI, NCB and sometimes even the Judges themselves! In an infamous case State v. Mohd. Naushad&Ors, the Delhi High Court observed that“the police showed casualness and callousness and there have been grave lapses by the police authorities and the entire investigation done in an all betraying a slipshod approach.”

IMPACT OF WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS

The impact of wrongful convictions is two-folds, affecting not only the convicted person, but also the machinery of justice in general.  According to the PSI study 2015, there were approximately 4 lakh prisoners across the country; out of which, 68% are under-trials.Firstly, taking an overview of its impact on the convicted individual, the most obvious of its consequences is the grave harm to the person's reputation. When a person is convicted for an offense, even though wrongfully, he is deemed offender not only in the eyes of Court, but also in the eyes of society- the society he has to deal with and live with and the society which now alienates him and sees him as heinous miscreant. In situations like these, it is normal for the individual to experience feelings of helplessness, fear, devastation and even depression. It is also a violation of his fundamental right to life and personal liberty, provided for under Article 21 of the Constitution. Another very obvious loss is that of time and resources. It is a common saying that an individual who remains estranged from the society for six months, automatically remains a year behind in life. Now for an individual, who is wrongfully convicted for an offense as serious as murder or rape, must prepare to remain imprisoned for anywhere between ten years to life imprisonment, or even a death penalty in some cases. Moreover, he becomes liable to pay a huge fine, as directed by Court along with the costs.In a famous case that came into limelight in 2019, a Kashmiri youth was exoneratedfrom his conviction, under TADA, after 23 years, just to reach home to find his parents dead.

Now considering that he somehow gets through his punishment term (though unjustified), the hardships still haven't exhausted yet. Even after coming out of the prison, he still has to cope with the changed world. He has lost not just the opportunities during the time in imprisonment, but also the time to develop his skills which could earn him a decent bare minimum lifestyle.

Now coming on to the impact of wrong convictions on society in general, it isn't out of place to mention about the blot which is put on the Judiciary of the country. While the innocent is facing the hardships of punishment, and the society busy hurting his self-image with humiliation, the real offender is still out there lurking and waiting probably waiting for ripe time to commit another offence. So, far from delivering justice to the individual, the Courts have in fact made the society remain unsafe by ignorantly exonerating the real miscreant.

PROTECTION AGAINST WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS

As, it is evident what an anathema the wrongful convictions are to the society and to the convicted individual, it becomes need of the hour to examine the protections we have against these. Again, the protection as well is two-folds- one being preventive measures to avoid wrongful convictions, and the other being provisions to overturn the wrong decision. The Constitution of India has provided for protection against wrongful convictions under Article 20. It protects the individual from being punished with greater sentence/fine than the law provided at time of commission of offense. It also protects the individual from becoming witness against his own case (self-incrimination) and from being punished for the same offense twice.

Another remedy that the convicted person has is making an appeal before a superior court. Section 374 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1983 provides than an individual who is wrongfully convicted by a magistrate's court may appeal to the Sessions Court, while an individual convicted by the Sessions Court can appeal to the High Court to get the decision overturned. The appellate jurisdiction of High Courts and Supreme Court also play an important role in safeguarding individual rights. The Supreme Court is empowered to hear appeals from the High Courts if the High Court certifies that the case is fit for its standards. Even the convicted person fails to obtain the certificate from High Court, he may directly approach the Supreme Court via Special Leave Petition, provided for under Article 136.

Another Constitutional remedy a person may have against wrongful convictions is filing a Writ Petition before either the Supreme Court (under Article 32) or the High Court (under Article 226) and get passed the writ of prohibition, in case where the Petitioner has apprehension that the lower court may cause grave misdelivery of justice, or the writ of certiorari, where he has enough evidences to claim that an order/decree is not fair. It was held in the case of Ram Lakhan Singh v. State Government of Uttar Pradesh, that a wrongful prosecution is an infringement of fundamental right. It is also a misuse of the process of law. If everything else fails, and the convicted person has no other choice than to accept this new reality, he can still opt for the remedies meant for all the convicted persons including Appeals, followed by Review petitions and even the powers of President to grant pardon.

In case of State of Rajasthan V. Smt. Vidhyawathi, it was has held that “India being a Republican Form of Government and being a socialistic State should be held liable vicariously for the tortious acts of its servant.” Therefore, when a person is convicted wrongfully, he can sue the Government of India under Article 300 of the Constitution to seek compensation. Even various international conventions provide that a victim of wrongful conviction should be provided compensation by the State.As of now, there is no systematic mechanism to provide compensation or any other remedy to the victims of wrongful convictions and now, considering the unlawful arrests and convictions by government authorities, it is high time to establish one.

 

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Prajjwal Gour Online
on 16 November 2020
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