A three-judge Bench of Justice AM Khanwilkar, Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Justice CT Ravikumar has in a rape and a murder case commuted the death sentence of the accused to life imprisonment holding that there is a possibility and probability of the reformation and rehabilitation of the accused.

The Court refused to hold that the case fell in the category of 'rarest of rare' in which there is no alternative but to impose the death sentence.

In this case, the Appellant–Accused was convicted of the offences under Sections 302, 376A, 376 (2)(i) IPC, and Section 6 of the POCSO Act. He was consequently awarded death sentence on first two counts, subject to confirmation by the High Court, and life imprisonment under the 3rd and 4th counts besides sentence of a fine of Rs. 2,000 each, on all the counts.

Aggrieved, the Appellant approached the Madhya Pradesh High Court challenging his conviction. The High Court partly allowed the appeal where the conviction and sentence of the accused under Section 376A IPC were set aside on technical grounds and the rest of the sentences and conviction under Section 376(2)(i) IPC, Section 302 IPC, and Section 6 of POCSO Act recorded by the Trial Court were confirmed. Hence, the death sentence under Section 302 IPC was thereby confirmed by the High Court.

Senior Counsel Ms. Sonia Mathur appeared as Amicus Curiae and Standing Counsel Mr. Pashupatinath Razdan appeared for the State of Madhya Pradesh before the Apex Court.

The Supreme Court had to adjudicate upon the issue as to whether the conviction of the Appellant for the stated offences and the sentences imposed warranted interference.

  • Conviction based on circumstantial evidence

The Bench while adjudicating upon the issue noted that the conviction in the case was based on circumstantial evidence. It also noted that rarely, the death penalty would be awarded if the conclusion on the connection of the accused with the offence(s) is fixed on circumstantial evidence.

In this context, the Court further opined –

"It is true that even in such cases existence of exceptional circumstances/special circumstances would make death penalty awardable."

First Circumstance – Victim was raped and murdered

The Bench added that for the first circumstance that the victim was raped and murdered, there is a concurrent finding in favor of the Prosecution.

The Court also noted that the Prosecution has mainly relied upon the expert opinion of PW10 (the Doctor who performed the autopsy of the body of the deceased along with another doctor) and the post-mortem report proved by him where all ante mortem injuries were noted and where the cause of death was mentioned as asphyxia due to throttling.

While holding that the opinion of the doctor with the support of the post-mortem report is entitled to get great weight, the Bench noted that the Court could not abdicate its function as the ultimate opiner.

The Bench in this context observed –

"Taking into account the ocular and medical evidence and upon their deeper analysis, the court has to form and record its opinion as to the cause of death for the purpose of finding out whether the death involved in a given case is accidental or suicidal or homicidal, in nature."

  • Whether the death was homicidal in nature

The Bench in this context noted –

"Both the Courts, evidently concluded that Asphyxia by throttling is the cause of death and further that the grave injuries sustained by her on the private parts were also sufficient to cause death in the ordinary course of nature. The aforesaid contention of the appellant did not commend to us in the circumstances and also taking note of their combined effect."

Thus, the Bench held that it has no hesitation to hold that the death of the victim was homicidal in nature and invites no interference.

  • Significance of Section 53A CrPC in Investigation

Section 53A deals with the examination of the person accused of rape by a medical practitioner. It provides detailed examination of person accused of rape by a registered medical practitioner employed in a hospital run by the Government or by a local authority and in the absence of such a practitioner within the radius of 16 kilometers from the place where the offence has been committed, by any other registered medical practitioner.

The Bench referred to the contention of the Appellant that the non-conduct of DNA profiling of his samples led to the violation of Section 53A. Hence, there is an absence of conclusive evidence to connect him with the samples taken from the body of the deceased.

The Bench in this context noted that the non-conduct of DNA profiling in terms of the provisions under Section 53A CrPC is a flaw in the investigation.

The Court further in the regard, noted, "Hence, it is the duty of the investigating agency to protect the rights of both the accused and the victim by adhering to the prescribed procedures in the matter of investigation and thereby to ensure a fair, competent and effective investigation."

However, the Bench held that solely on account of defects or shortcomings in investigation an accused is not entitled to get acquitted.

While placing reliance on various precedents, the Bench observed –

"…a positive result of the DNA test would constitute clinching evidence against the accused if, however, the result of the test is in the negative i.e., favouring the accused or if DNA profiling had not been done in a given case, the weight of the other materials and evidence on record will still have to be considered."

  • Culpability of accused based on 'last seen theory'

The Bench held that the 'last seen theory' is certainly applicable in a crime like the one which happened in this case, which was carried out in sly and in secrecy during the night in the absence of any eye-witnesses.

The Court placed reliance on Nizam and Anr. Vs. State of Rajasthan [(2016) 1 SCC 550], where it was held that it is not prudent to base conviction solely on the basis of last seen theory.

The Court held that it is safer to look for corroboration from other circumstances and evidence produced by the Prosecution.

Further, the Court placed reliance on Arabindra Mukherjee Vs. State of West Bengal [(2011) 14 SCC 352], and held that the onus was upon the accused to lead evidence to prove his innocence.

  • Recovery of Dead Body at the instance of accused

The Court held that the recovery of the dead body of the deceased at the instance of the accused was a crucial incriminating circumstance.

The Bench placed reliance on Jaharlal Das Vs. State of Orissa [AIR 1991 SC 1388], where the Apex Court had held that the discovery of the body at the instance of the accused is a crucial circumstance, in a case resting on circumstantial evidence.

  • High Court's interference in setting aside conviction U/s. 376A IPC

The Court held that the approach of the High Court in setting aside the conviction and sentence of the Appellant under Section 376A IPC cannot be said to be wrongful or illegal as the conviction of the accused was based upon circumstantial evidence.

  • Analysis of complete chain of events

The Bench further noted that upon analyzing the complete chain of events and the materials supporting them, they were wholly inconsistent with the innocence of the Appellant – Accused and consistent with his guilt.

"The trial Court and also the High Court had concurrently concluded that the death of the victim is homicidal in nature. We have found, based on the evidence on record, that the Courts have rightly found that the victim was raped. The diabolic and gruesome manner in which the appellant had ravished the hapless girl is evident from the grave injuries on her pudenda. There occurred perennial tear of grade fourth extending up to anus and that her uterus was torn and was coming out from the vagina. As noticed above, the vaginal swab on examination revealed the presence of blood and semen. Hence, the finding that the deceased was subjected to rape warrants no interference," the Court opined.

  • Whether death sentence awarded by Trial Court and confirmed by the High Court for murder is sustainable

The Court in this context held that the death penalty is awarded to the culprit only when the category falls under 'rarest of rare', or where the culprit has become a threat to society and beyond reformation and his elimination is the only way for the eradication of the threat.

The Court noted that for awarding natural termination of life, careful scrutiny is required, thus the Court held -

"The trial Court considered the question of sentence and awarded the same on the very same day on which the appellant was convicted. We shall not be understood to have held that this is absolutely illegal and impermissible. Ultimately, what is required is consideration of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances with application of mind. They were not given the proper attention while considering the question of awarding the sentence for conviction under Section 302 IPC, in the case on hand."

The Court noted the Appellant has no criminal antecedents and he hails from a poor socio-economic background also his unblemished conduct inside the jail cannot go unnoticed. Hence, there is no reason to rule out the possibility and probability of reformation and rehabilitation of the Appellant.

The Court thus held that the Appellant has to be awarded life imprisonment without applying the provisions of premature release/remission for a substantial length of period.

"On such consideration we are of the view that it would be just and proper to award punishment of imprisonment for life to the appellant for the offence punishable under Section 302 IPC, by providing for an actual imprisonment for a period of 30 (thirty) years without application of the provisions of premature release/remission," the Bench concluded.

Click here to read/download the Judgment