Santosh Kumar Singh vs. State through CBI- ( 2010)9SCC747 “Though I know he is the man who committed the crime, I acquit him, giving him the benefit of doubt”.
This shocking statement of the Additional Sessions Judge, G.P. Thareja in Ms. Priyadarshini Mattoo case, while acquitting the accused reflects the deplorable state of our criminal justice system. This is one of the cases to have triggered public indignation over the miscarriage of justice at the instance of high profile and influential accused Santosh Kumar Singh, son of Former Senior IPS Officer J.P. Singh. Over the years corruption in the judicial system coupled with political influence has become so rampant that it has in turn resulted in distortion of the entire Indian Judiciary.
It is said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is ironical that the Judiciary itself being one of the most potent organs of the government is subdued by the rich and persuasive lot of the society. Sadly almost all the constitutional safeguards and restraints on judicial misconduct are now dead.
Background of the case: Priyadarshini Mattoo was a 25 year old law student, who was found raped and murdered at her house in New Delhi on 23 January, 1996. Priyadarshini finished her school from Srinagar thereafter her family migrated to Jammu. After completing her B Com from Jammu she joined Delhi University for her LL.B. course. She had lodged several complaints of harassment, intimidation and stalking against the accused Santosh Kumar Singh who was also a student of LL.B. in campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. The accused had passed LL.B. from University of Delhi from the said Campus Law Centre in December, 1994.
Repetitive complaints made by the deceased turned out to be completely futile in as much as it failed to deter the accused who continued to harass her. Despite the earlier two undertakings given by the accused subsequent to the complaints registered against him by the deceased at the R.K. Puram and Vasant Kunj Police Station on 25 February,1995 and 16 August.,1995 respectively, on 06 November.,1995, he again tried to harass the deceased at the Campus Law Centre. After this an FIR under section 354 of Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 was lodged against him at the Maurice Nagar Police Station for which he was arrested and subsequently released on personal bond. The deceased had also filed a complaint dated 27 October, 1995 to the Dean, Faculty of Law, and Campus Law Centre stating harassment. The accused was advised to desist from such activities .Infact the gravity of the matter was such that the deceased was advised to meet the Deputy Commissioner of Police (South West) to whom she complained against the accused upon which, a Personal Security Officer was provided to the deceased.
As a result of these, on 30 October ,1995 the anguished accused out of vindictiveness made frivolous complaints to the authorities at the Delhi University against the deceased that she was concurrently pursuing two courses at the same time. Because of this, the result of the deceased was withheld by the university which issued show cause notice to which she was to reply at the earliest. The accused followed the matter against the deceased in his personal capacity. In her explanation, the deceased claimed that she had completed her M.Com in 1991 and was yet to appear in her LL.B. III year exam, thereby refuting the charges levied against her. She also reiterated harassment by the accused for the past one and a half years from then. On the fateful day of the murder when the deceased was alone at her residence at B-10/7098, Vasant Kunj the accused came at her house. On the arrival of the security guard Rajinder Singh at the deceased’s residence it was found that Priyadarshini Mattoo was lying under the double bed and there was no movement of her body. Thus an FIR under Section 302 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) was lodged at his instance at the Vasant Kunj Police Station. In the statement recorded under Section 161 of Cr.P.C. Rajeshwari Mattoo, the mother of the deceased had suspected the accused and therefore he was joined in the investigation.
In the Trial Court: The matter was taken up by the Delhi Police but there after on a request placed by C.L. Mattoo; the deceased’s father the case was handed over to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on 25 January, 1996. After a thorough investigation made by CBI into the matter, on 11 April, 1996, the Central Agency filed charge sheet against Santosh Kumar Singh. The accused was challaned in accordance with law. Thereafter the case came up for hearing and the then Additional Sessions Judge, S.C.Mittal was pleased to frame charges under Sections 302 and 376 of IPC. The accused pleaded not guilty to the charges and claimed trial. On 11 August, 1997 the trial began. On 3 January, 1998 in all; as many as fifty witnesses were examined in the court. After taking into account all the circumstantial and documentary evidence produced by the prosecution, the trial court on 3 December, 1999 acquitted the accused giving him a benefit of doubt stating that the CBI had failed to correctly produce the evidence and had acted in an unfair manner. Furthermore, it was pointed out that the DNA report presented by the CBI was fabricated sand therefore, inadmissible in the eyes of law in view of Section 45 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
In the High Court: The trial court judgement took everyone by surprise more so when the trial court was convinced that there was no doubt in the prosecution case. The judgement was erroneous on the face of it in as much as the trial court had itself observed that, “the DNA finger printing report conclusively establishes the guilt of the accused.” Therefore, in view of the fallacious decision followed by subsequent huge public outcry, on 29 February, 2000 the CBI filed an appeal in the Delhi High Court. It was only after six years that the High Court heard the matter on a day to day basis.
The High Court too shuddered at G.P. Thareja’s verdict, it said, “By acquitting the respondent despite being convinced that there was no doubt in the prosecution case, the trial court has mauled justice, and its decision has shocked the judicial conscience of the court.”
On 17 October, 2006 the High Court overturned the trial court verdict of seven years ago and Justice R.S. Sodhi and P.K. Bhasin patted CBI, the same agency that had lost its case in the lower court, for proving Santosh Kumar Singh’s guilt “beyond any doubt by unimpeachable evidence.”On 30 October, 2006 the Delhi High Court convicted the accused for the commission of offences punishable under Sections 302 and 376 of Indian Penal Code and sentenced him to death.
In the Supreme Court: On 19 February, 2007 the accused Santosh Kumar Singh preferred an appeal in the Supreme Court against the award of death sentence by the Delhi High Court. On 6 October, 2010 the Bench comprising Justices H.S. Bedi and C.K. Prasad upheld the conviction of Santosh Kumar Singh in the fourteen year old Priyadarshini Mattoo rape and murder case. It, however, reduced the punishment of death sentence to life imprisonment saying that certain things were in favour of the appellant. The Bench opined that, “the balance sheet was in favour of Santosh Kumar Singh and the ends of justice would be met if Santosh Kumar Singh’s death penalty is commuted to life imprisonment.”
Analysis of the Case: The shoddy investigation and tampering of evidence was the major hurdle faced by the prosecution in the trial. The clincher was that the DNA test proved rape. The broken visor of the helmet of Santosh and fracture in his hand besides the 19 injuries on Mattoo’s body was something that conclusively settled the controversy in favour of the prosecution; so also the several complaints by Mattoo to the police established motive and eye witness accounts proved that Santosh was seen outside Mattoo’s house minutes before the murder.
The Trial Court in the course of delivering its judgment had noted that the accused had a motive for the crimes alleged to have been committed by him as was evident from the continuous harassment and the personal undertakings and apologies rendered by him in this regard more than once. Moreover, the accused was seen outside the premises of the Faculty of Law, Campus Law Centre on the forenoon of the day of the murder by Head Constable Rajinder Singh. The Trial Judge had also arrived at a categorical conclusion that on 23 January, 1996 in the evening at about 4.50 p.m. the accused was seen standing outside the flat of the deceased by her immediate neighbor Kuppuswamy. Vikas Sharma was the witness who had sold some plastic containers on the day of incident to the deceased around 4.20 p.m. just before the accused was noticed outside the flat of the deceased which showed that the deceased was in her flat around that time. It had been found to be so by the Trial Court. Shri Jaideep Singh Ahluwalia, the Security Supervisor had also seen the accused at about 5.30 p.m. near the residence of the deceased. The accused was also noticed by Shri O.P. Singh, Advocate, on his bullet motor cycle getting out of the parking area of B-10, Vasant Kunj and proceeding towards Vasant Kunj area around 5.30 p.m. There was no material on record to establish that the witnesses had any perverse intention so as to advance the case of the prosecution in any way by resorting to tampering.
It had also been accepted by the Trial Court that at that time the accused was having a helmet with a visor and later on when the police recovered that helmet of the accused it was not having the visor but there were some broken pieces of the visor sticking to the helmet which pieces later on were found to be having some blood on it. When examined by the Centre Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL), the helmet was in a bad shape at that time presumably because of the accused having assaulted the deceased with it with massive force suggested by the 19 injuries on the person of the deceased coupled with her three broken ribs. At about 5.40 p.m. the deceased was found dead in her flat. In the wake of these findings in favour of the prosecution there was hardly any scope for the acquittal of the accused.
Moreover, during the investigation when the accused was medically examined, his reports revealed injuries on his right hand which he claimed to have sustained on 14 January, 1996. In regard to this when the expert opinion of Dr .G.K .Choubey of Safdurjung Hospital was sought for, he said that the injuries appeared to be fresh in nature thereby contradicting the false plea taken by Santosh Singh earlier. As per the principles of Law of Evidence the onus lay upon the accused to rebut the findings of the Prosecution obtained by expert evidence that the injuries on the person of the accused were not more than 48 hours old and the respondent having failed to do so, the inference of the prosecution in regard to the injury had to find favour with the Trial Court which was not the case.
The Trial Court came down heavily on the role of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad alleging attempt by their senior scientists to “suppress the unfairness of the CBI which was glittering like gold from the records.” The trial court also attacked the role played by the Delhi Police in its attempt to assist the accused during investigation and also during the trial. It further observed that, “the approach and the working of the subordinate staff of Delhi Police suggest that the rule of law is not meant for those who enforce the law nor for their near relatives.” This view of the Trial Court suggests that there was deliberate inaction by the police by virtue of the influential position held by the accused’s father in the Delhi Police which encouraged Santosh Kumar Singh to commit the crime with impunity.
Despite so many circumstances in favour of the Prosecution, the Trial Court acquitted the accused stating that the CBI had failed on several counts namely concealing from the court the evidence collected by it, fabricating documentary evidence on behalf of the accused, not following official procedure in conducting the DNA test, depriving the court of an opportunity to review it judicially. Coming to think of it, there was infact no room for doubt in the prosecution case.
Finally after a span of seven years, the Delhi High Court did a commendable job of awarding death sentence to Santosh Kumar Singh thereby restoring the confidence of the general masses in the judiciary. The Delhi High Court remarked that the findings of the Trial Court were perverse in nature. The view of the Trial Court as regards the inadmissibility of the DNA test was not tenable in the eyes of law in as much as the court ought to have accorded due and fair consideration to the reports procured by the expert evidence at the instance of the CBI. The Delhi High Court ruled out the reason given by the Trial Court holding the CBI responsible for having acted in an unjust and unfair manner. There was no effort whatsoever on the part of the CBI to conceal any material evidence from the court. Hence, the Delhi High Court removed the accused from the umbrella rule of “benefit of doubt” extended by the Trial Court.
It is said that life is a gift of God. No one, even including the state has any right to take away life. Beccaria denounced capital punishment by saying that the state has no right to put an individual to death, because the life of the individual was not surrendered to it as part of the consideration for the social contract. In the instant case, the arguments advanced by those who do not favour the punishment of death penalty does not hold good taking into the consideration the brutality with which Santosh Kumar Singh had murdered and raped her. The abominable act committed by the accused was such that award of death sentence was absolutely necessary and any sentence less than this is clearly inadequate. Therefore, the commutation of death penalty into life imprisonment by the Supreme Court is absolutely unfair and unjust.
Justice R.S. Sodhi of the Delhi High Court said, “If the Supreme Court says that it is not the rarest of rare case, then that’s it. I felt, while delivering the justice that this was very serious and as per the circumstances he had been troubling this girl for years. She had approached every possible police station and was ultimately given protection. Yet, he didn’t care for the law: he just barged into her house, raped her and murdered her. I thought this was the limit.”
Balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating factors has been elucidated both in Bachan Singh’s (Bachan Singh Vs. State of Punjab 1980) and Machhi Singh’s (Machhi Singh Vs. State of Punjab 1983) case. Guidelines have been indicated by the Supreme Court as to when this extreme sentence should be awarded and when not. In short, a balance-sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances has to be drawn up and in doing so, the mitigating circumstances have to be accorded full weightage and a just balance has to be struck between the aggravating and mitigating circumstances before the option is exercised to award one sentence or the other. The “rarest of the rare doctrine” was laid down in these cases which provide that life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence constitutes an exception to the rule.
In the light of the present case, the pertinent questions that need to be answered are:-
(a) Was there something uncommon about the crime which renders sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for the death sentence.
(b) Were the circumstance of the crime such that there was no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which spoke in favour of the offender.
After a careful examination of the facts of the case it is clearly evident that the murder had taken place in very sordid circumstances and nothing short of death punishment would have met the ends of justice. Reverting to the facts of the case it is observed that the accused had mercilessly strangulated the victim with the heat convector wire. The ghastliness of the murder is obvious from the post mortem report so also the marks of scratches on the mouth, neck and the chest of the deceased coupled with the blood which was oozing out from her as observed by Inspector Lalit Mohan as on the day of the incident.
There were no mitigating circumstances indeed in favour of the accused and in our opinion it is strongly felt that death sentence was warranted and the Supreme Court has clearly erred by way of commuting the death sentence awarded by the High Court into a sentence of imprisonment for life. The Apex Court judgement may now set a precedent for future cases where rape and murder convicts will now serve a life term.
The cruel manner of killing Priyadarshini justifies the award of death sentence to Santosh Kumar Singh. In Nirmal Singh (State of Haryana Vs. Nirmal Singh 1998) , it was held that the case fell within the rarest category and, therefore death sentence was proper. The injuries showed that they must have been men of high depravity and brutality denuded of all human feelings.
In the case of Lalrinawas (State of Mizoram Vs. Lalrinawms 2000) , the accused confessed his crime and remained firm on his confession throughout; therefore the death penalty was commuted to sentence of life imprisonment. In the instant case, there is no such act on the part of Santosh Kumar Singh which is indicative of any repentance. On the contrary, he consistently gave false pleas and faked innocence which only adds to the aggravation side of the balance sheet.
In addition to these there are a couple of other aggravating circumstances to be considered in the balance sheet. The first and foremost being the incessant harassment of the victim by Santosh Kumar Singh and his criminal conduct which was brought to the notice of the police authorities several times. Keeping in mind his father’s influential position, he fearlessly landed up in killing the victim and his conduct thereafter also admits of no mitigation. (Singh 2010)
To quote the Supreme Court, “Undoubtedly, the appellant would have had time for reflection over the events of the last fifteen years, and to ponder over the predicament that he now faces, the reality that his father died a year after his conviction and the prospect of a dismal future for his young family, on the contrary there is nothing to suggest that he would not be capable of reform.” In the light of the above observation and in the absence of any overt action on the part of the accused relatable to such brooding, the only reasonable presumption that follows is that of course a period of fifteen years is a long time to reflect upon one’s wrong doings. But only that much can be presumed and nothing else. Is the commutation of death sentence by the Supreme Court justified? Isn’t it nothing more than an abuse of the power vested in the highest court of the country which the court has most vehemently exercised in an unreasonable and unjust manner?
The most remarkable feature in the punishment of death, and that which it possess in the greatest perfection, is the taking from the offender the power of doing further injury. Whatever is apprehended, either from the force or cunning of the criminal, at once vanishes away. Society is in a prompt and complete manner delivered from all alarm.
If death penalty is abolished, it would curtail a considerable expense upon society to maintain incorrigible offenders for the duration of their natural lives. Death sentence has a great deterrent effect upon potential criminals than any penalty because it is presumably the most frightening. It is also the most effective preventive punishment. Dangerous members of society are thereby permanently eliminated.
According to Garofalo, a renowned political philosopher, elimination of criminals was a sort of moral war for the good of society. Lambroso, a political thinker observed that capital punishment should be good as a threat to habitual and incorrigibles. Similar is the view adopted by the utilitarians. The hopeless criminal should be painlessly removed rather than that the stat should have to maintain him unnecessarily. (Rao 2005) So why should the State bear the brunt of maintaining the accused that did not even think twice before committing such a despicable offence? He neither went to Priyadarshini family to seek forgiveness nor did he join any social cause for the victims of rape and sexual abuse.
Conclusion: The Indian courts have emerged as the most powerful courts in the world with virtually no accountability. But every institution even the courts go wrong. The judiciary are peopled by judges who are human, and being human they are occasionally motivated by considerations other than an objective view of law and justice. It would be foolish to contend that none of them at least at some point in time are motivated by considerations of their own personal ideology, affiliations, predilections, biases and indeed even by nepotistic and corrupt considerations. But the Courts cannot afford to award judgments based on ethical and moral grounds, rather the bases should be purely legal in character. The role of a judge is not to read between lines but to offer a fair, just and reasonable interpretation of question of law posed before it. “Justice may not only be done but it must also seem to be done.” Thus, the judiciary as a fillip to the nation must strive to deliver justice in all circumstances without any fear, favour, affection or ill will.
Bibliography: # Bachan Singh Vs. State of Punjab. SLP Cr.No. 1732 of 1979 (The Supreme Court, 9 May 1980). # Machhi Singh Vs. State of Punjab. Cr.Appeal No. 419 of 1982 (The Supreme Court, 20 July 1983). # Rao, Dr. M.Sriniwas. Political Obligation. New Era Law Publications, 2005. # Singh, Hemraj. “Matto Judgement.” Lawyers Update, November 2010: 14-17. # State of Haryana Vs. Nirmal Singh. Cr.Appeal 489 of 1997 (High Court of Punjab and Haryana, 29 September 1998). # State of Mizoram Vs. Lalrinawms. Cr.Ref. 1 of 1999 (High Court of Gauhati, 23 February 2000).
The author can be reached at: email@example.com