A judgment to remember

Print edition : November 17, 2006

Santosh Kumar Singh after his conviction by the Delhi High Court on October 17. - MUSTAFA QURAISHI/AP

By upholding the validity of circumstantial evidence in the Mattoo case, the Delhi High Court seems to have set a precedent.

By acquitting the respondent despite being convinced that there was no doubt in the prosecution case (at least for the offence of murder), the trial court has mauled justice, its decision has shocked the judicial conscience of this Court.

- The Delhi High Court in the Priyadarshni Mattoo case

ON October 30, 2006, the curtain came down on the sensational Mattoo case, with the Delhi High Court sentencing Delhi lawyer Santosh Kumar Singh to death for the rape and murder of Priyadarshni, a law student, on January 23, 1996. The judgment came at the end of an aggressive media campaign that had sought an early conclusion of what the public considered a process of undue delay in bringing justice to the battered Mattoo family.

I still remember that bleak December day of 1999 when the order of Additional Sessions Judge G.P. Thareja came down like a tonne of bricks on the Central Bureau of Investigation (which I was heading at that time) for its alleged lapses, before acquitting Santosh, the son of a former senior officer in the Delhi Police, of the grave charges filed against him.

By all accounts, Judge Thareja was a strait-laced and competent judge. Also, he was more than convinced that it was Santosh who had committed the heinous offence. Still, he could not bring himself to pronounce Santosh guilty because of certain infirmities in the procedure adopted by the prosecution for collecting, preserving and producing medical evidence. Both the media and the Opposition in Parliament were quick to pillory the CBI for its alleged sloppiness and cover-up attempt to save a police officer's son.

My law officers took quick action to file a well reasoned appeal, in March 2000 against the acquittal, that came up for hearing six years thereafter, following the decision of the current CBI Director Vijay Shankar to move the Delhi High Court for an early hearing. I must compliment him for his sensitivity in bowing to public opinion that somehow wrongly believed that the CBI had not done its homework before going to court with its charge-sheet in 1996. All this became history on October 17 this year when Justice R.S. Sodhi and Justice P.K. Bhasin of the Delhi High Court set aside the trial court order and held Santosh guilty of both rape and murder. The subsequent imposition of death sentence on him has been logical, and the CBI's firm stand that its investigation had been on correct lines is vindicated.

Although it is a painful to think that a life will shortly be taken, if the Supreme Court upholds the Delhi High Court's judgment, hardly any one would disagree that justice has been brought to a family that had been devastated by a dear one being snatched away brutally by a brash youth whose parents had apparently lost control over him.

The Delhi High Court decision will be talked about for a long, long time. I believe that it will serve as a classic case study for jurists, law students and police officers alike. There are some contentious issues here, especially the one of pure circumstantial evidence buttressing a conviction in a murder case. A precedent seems to have been established by the Delhi High Court that lower courts need not be weighed down by the fact that there is no eyewitness to a murder. It seems solid circumstantial evidence is a good enough basis for conviction, as long as such evidence persuades the judge to believe that no conclusion other than the guilt of the accused was possible to reach. As the High Court said: "The circumstantial evidence in the case is absolutely inconsistent and incompatible with the innocence of the respondent."

Santosh, a lawyer who had studied at the Delhi University, developed an infatuation for Priyadarshni who was an LL.B student at the Law Faculty. The feelings were, however, one-sided. From no account do I hear that the girl had given any quarter to Santosh to believe that she was in a mood to respond to his entreaties. Aggrieved over her indifference, Santosh started stalking her. On three separate occasions, a complaint was lodged with the Delhi Police.

Although Priyadarshni was given a personal security officer (PSO), Santosh was just warned and let off. This was the original sin that undoubtedly led to the subsequent ghastly happening. It is nearly certain that Santosh would not have committed his unpardonable crime if he had been disciplined through the registration of a formal case and hauled up before a court.

Another conjecture is that the parents were indifferent to their son's misconduct. This is the strongest message to all modern parents that they should do everything possible to ensure that their sons do not become a social menace. Kid-glove handling of misguided youngsters like Santosh ends in unmitigated tragedies.

The Delhi High Court judgment stands out for judicial pragmatism at a time when the criminal justice system in the country has been acccused by a wide cross-section of society as being tilted heavily in favour of lawbreakers. The defence had sought to establish that there was hardly a motive for Santosh to commit the crime. His was at best an infatuation that had led him to stalk the victim but did not offer the kind of provocation that would normally lead to a heinous crime.

The High Court judgment countered this argument saying: "Adequacy of motive is of little importance, as it is seen from the experience of criminal courts that atrocious crimes are committed for very slight motives... .the accused had the motive to have the deceased at all event and failing to, not to allow her to be of anybody else. The state has established the motive." This view of the Court plus the fact that an immediate neighbour of the Mattoos had seen the accused outside the victim's house a little before the occurrence clinched the issue. This credible witness had no axe to grind, and he stuck to his guns while deposing in court.

The DNA test conducted in the case by Dr. Lalji Singh of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, an internationally institution, had clearly established the fact of rape, although the surgeon who conducted the post-mortem at the Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi, had ruled out rape. The High Court went by the CCMB findings, which were based on rigorous tests.

The defence had sought to demolish the accuracy of the DNA test by taking advantage of the procedural delay in the transfer of the investigation from the Delhi Police to the CBI and alleging that the samples (both semen and blood) sent to the CCMB had been tampered with. The High Court dismissed the charge in no uncertain terms as baseless and expressed surprise at the trial court's stand that such tampering was possible, a speculation not backed by any pursuit of facts.

It was equally appalled at the lower court's picking holes in the procedure adopted by Dr. Lalji Singh in conducting his test, and took exception to the court's "introducing" its "learning based on literature", without posing the issues and its misgivings to the expert who actually performed the test.

The trial court had pulled up the CBI for not letting in evidence handed over to it by the father of the accused in the form of an X-ray that sought to explain the injury found on the accused when he was summoned to the police for an examination. The accused attempted to explain away the injury as one sustained from a fall from his scooter. The High Court said that the burden of assisting the court in this matter was on the defence, and the CBI could hardly be faulted for this.

The trial court commented that the injury on the hand of the accused was no doubt fresh. But since the prosecution had suppressed the fact of treatment received by the accused, the latter's contention to the contrary was also possible. The High Court was carping on this contradiction and said that by rejecting the radiologist's opinion that the injury was fresh (not dating back to January 14, that is, nine days before the murder took place, as contended by the defence) the trial court was "rewriting medical jurisprudence". Can there be a more pungent comment on the quality of the judgment?

There is a widespread feeling that the media was exercising too much of an influence on the judiciary and the Mattoo judgment was an example. This seems grossly unfair, and it is difficult to agree with this sweeping comment on the judiciary.

At the same time, no human being, be it a judge or a common man, can honestly say that visual presentations most powerfully portraying the emotions of a victim's family in a case like the Mattoo murder have hardly any impact on him or her. There cannot be one hundred per cent objectivity, totally devoid of emotions, in judicial exercises. What ultimately matters is how a `reasonable man' perceives justice in his environ. And he is seldom wrong.

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