Follow us on


A shocking acquittal

Print edition : Dec 25, 2000 T+T-

Acquitting the accused in a major case of rape and murder, a Delhi court raps the investigators for their lapses.

THE acquittal on December 3 of the prime accused in a case of rape and murder in New Delhi in January 1996, the verdict stemming mainly from alleged lapses and "unfairness" on the part of the prosecution and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) whic h investigated the case, has dealt a blow to public faith in the criminal justice system.

In a 449-page judgment, Additional Sessions Judge G.P. Thareja acquitted Santosh Kumar Singh, a law student in the University of Delhi and the son of a senior officer of the Indian Police Service, of the charge of rape and murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo, a third-year law student, on January 23, 1996. Mattoo was found strangled to death in the bedroom of her South Delhi apartment with 19 injuries on her person.

The operative portion of the verdict is telling. The Judge said: "Though I know he is the man who committed the crime, I acquit him, giving him the benefit of the doubt."

The judgment passed severe strictures against the Delhi Police, which initially investigated the case, and the CBI, to which the case was transferred following public expressions of outrage over the handling of the case by the Delhi Police. It was also h arshly critical of the alleged attempt by senior scientists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, to "suppress the unfairness of the CBI which was glittering like gold from the records."

The court faulted the CBI on several counts, including for not following "official procedure", keeping away from the court evidence collected by it, fabricating documentary evidence on behalf of the accused; "fabricating DNA technology"; and keeping away the fingerprint report from the court, thus depriving the court of an opportunity to review it judicially. Responding to the CBI's failure to make available the chance fingerprint report to the court, Judge Thareja wondered "if the CBI during trial know ingly acted in this manner to favour the accused."

According to facts that were accepted by the court, Santosh Kumar Singh, son of J.P. Singh, currently Inspector-General of Police, Pondicherry, harassed Mattoo in January and February 1995 and again in August, November and December that year by stalking her, telephoning her at her residence and at a hospital where her mother had been admitted, and stopping her car and shouting at her. Mattoo lodged police complaints against him, following which he apologised to her. She was provided with a personal secu rity officer by the police on the orders of the Deputy Commissioner of Police, but Santosh Singh continued to harass her.

The judgment declared as unsubstantiated Santosh Singh's claim that Mattoo had lodged the complaints against him following his refusal to allow her to sing at a cultural festival.

The most clinching piece of evidence accepted by the court against the accused was that a neighbour of the Mattoos had noticed Santosh Singh at the entrance to the apartment shortly before the crime was committed. The court further admitted the fact that soon after the crime was committed, Mattoo's mother suspected the hand of the accused; that the influence of Santosh Singh's father was felt during the initial investigation and there was deliberate inaction by the police; that at the time of the crime the accused had a helmet with a visor, which was seized later with the visor broken; and that the CBI kept away from the court two reports and witnesses which, the defence argued, indicated that the injuries on Santosh Singh's hand and the broken visor r elated to an incident that had occurred earlier, in January 1996.

Establishing a motive for the crime on the basis of a chain of events, the judgment noted that Santosh Singh "had ulterior motive to have the deceased and consequently was after her". It said that on the day of the crime, Santosh Singh had gained entry i nto Mattoo's house by claiming that he had come to negotiate a compromise in order to facilitate the withdrawal of the complaints.

The judgment took note of the fact that the injuries on Santosh Singh's hand on the day of the crime were fresh and that he possessed the helmet with a visor, which was seized later with the visor broken.

This was taken together with Mattoo's mother's response linking Santosh Singh to the crime and the false defence adopted by Santosh Singh. To rebut the presumption of law, the onus was then on the accused to prove that the injuries on the metacarpal bone of his right hand and the damage to the visor were the result of an incident that occurred previously, on January 14, 1996. This, the order held, the accused had failed to do.

IT is here that the CBI's alleged role became crucial. The order asserted that the agency, which was responsible for collecting evidence and depositions of witnesses in the matter of the claimed injury of January 14, 1996, had kept these away from judici al scrutiny. The order held that even if the court had found that the injury was fresh, "on account of the lack of fair play on the part of the CBI, it cannot say that the defence of the accused is not plausible."

The court wondered if the CBI's failure to produce before the court Mattoo's servant Virender Prasad, an important witness, had "resulted in obstructing the ball of proof of criminal justice from going beyond reasonable doubt due to lack of fairness on p art of the CBI in producing such evidence for judicial scrutiny/review." The CBI recorded Prasad's statement on January 27, four days after the incident, but did not produce him in court as a witness. The court wondered whether the CBI, "by acting in thi s manner, had negatively intended to help the accused" and betrayed the confidence reposed in it. Judge Thareja observed that he had even considered whether the CBI should be "called upon to produce the evidence which had been kept away" and a scrutiny m ade of such evidence. However, he said, it was felt that for the court to exercise such powers would send out the signal that it was playing the role of a prosecutor. "Such a course appeared to be unfair to the system of administration of justice."

The court's predicament while delivering the judgment is apparent. It was left to consider whether the CBI's failure to present to the court the material defence evidence it had collected had rendered the prosecution's case weak. The judgment held that " where two views were possible and there is matter of doubt, the accused should be allowed to escape as is the principle." However, Judge Thareja observed that while the benefit of the doubt had to be given to the accused, "an exaggerated devotion to the rule of benefit of doubt should not nurture fanciful doubt and make justice sterile on the plea that it was better to let a hundred guilty escape" rather than punish an innocent person. To let the guilty escape was not to do justice according to law, it held. However, "in this case, there is no fanciful doubt that it is the CBI which is responsible for such an end," the order stated.

The case was handed over to the CBI by the then Commiss-ioner of Police, Delhi, who felt that the victims' parents would not have confidence in an investigation by the Delhi Police as the father of the accused was a senior IPS officer.

The judgment, which was particularly scathing in its criticism of the role of the Delhi Police, observed that "the subordinate staff of the Delhi Police attempted to assist the accused during investigation and also during trial." Even after the CBI took over the case, an Inspector of the Delhi Police continued to be associated with the matter. "The approach and the working of the subordinate staff of the Delhi Police suggest that the rule of law is not meant for those who enforce the law nor for their n ear relatives." Such an approach, the order said, would encourage the children of such persons to commit crimes with impunity.

The CBI responded quickly to contain the impact of the highly damaging and unconventional judgment. Taking a serious view of the strictures, CBI Director R.K. Raghavan set up a committee comprising two Special Directors to look into the matter. The agenc y will challenge before the Delhi High Court the verdict of the lower court; if its case is upheld, it will seek a direction from the court for expunging the adverse remarks that it clearly believes are unfounded and unwarranted. It is expected to questi on the trial court's competence regarding DNA tests and argue that internationally established testing procedures were followed in this case. A departmental inquiry has also been initiated and, according to informed sources, it will be completed in a mon th.

According to N.K. Singh, former Joint Director, CBI, the strictures were "shocking and disturbing". The agency had been pulled up in the past for tardy investigation but this was the first time that the CBI had received a judicial rebuke for allegedly fa bricating and tampering with evidence, especially in a case of rape and murder, he said. N.K. Singh told Frontline that ultimately it was up to the judiciary to ensure that innocent persons did not get penalised and that the guilty were not acquit ted. He suggested that the court could have considered issuing warrants for the arrest of the fingerprint expert or order a re-investigation. The CBI could reopen the case in order to serve the ends of justice, said N.K. Singh, who retired as the Directo r-General of Police of the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

Former CBI Director Joginder Singh told Frontline that in the Mattoo case the evidence presented was largely circumstantial because in crimes such as rape and murder, there were rarely, if ever, any witnesses. Defending the CBI and the CCMB, he sa id that no laboratory would accept samples that were not properly sealed. On the court's observation regarding the CBI's failure to produce witnesses, such as the servant, Joginder Singh said that the agency was not obliged to cite every single witness. If the servant had not told the prosecution anything of significance, the CBI was not obliged to produce him in court.

Another former Director of the CBI, D.R. Karthikeyan, told Frontline that while individual officers may have been responsible for some lapses, the agency itself was above board.

THE verdict in the Mattoo case figured in Parliament on December 14, with members in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha expressing concern over the acquittal.