HM Journal

“Can’t sustain order of conviction on mere suspicion”: SC acquitted a woman accused of blazing her husband’s first wife and children on fire, coming unharmed from the blazed house.

Case Law: Parubai v State of Maharashtra[1] , Criminal Appeal No. 1154 of 2018, decided on 10-8-2021.

Background:

The conviction of the accused appellant, who was convicted for the murder of her husband’s first wife and their children, was overturned by a Division Bench consisting of Hemant Gupta and A.S. Bopanna, JJ. The Supreme Court determined that the chain of circumstantial evidence was insufficient and granted her the benefit of the doubt.

Facts of the case:

The appellant was married to one Gulab who was married to the deceased with two children. The appellant’s husband and mother-in-law were also accused but were acquitted by the Sessions Court. The appellant, her husband, the deceased, the children, the appellant’s in-laws, and their servant all shared a residence. On the day of the incident, the appellant’s husband and mother-in-law were not in the house, and her father-in-law was sleeping outdoors. The prosecution said that on the night of the incident a fire broke out at their home, engulfing it in flames. The appellant, who was also there at the time, was unharmed. Mandabai and her daughter were taken out of the house with burn injuries, while her son died inside the house from the fire. The father- in-law who woke up in confusion instructed the servant to get a jeep and took the victims to the hospital. Both Madanbai and her daughter died the next day due to severe burn injuries.

Appellant’s father-in-law brought a case against her and named her as an accused. She was then charged with a crime. The Sessions Court found her guilty and sentenced her to death under Sections 302 (murder) and 436 (mischief by fire) of the Indian Penal Code. The appellant moved to the Supreme Court after the Bombay High Court held her guilty.

Principles in Reference:

The judgment pointed out a few principles decidedly. The judgment authored by Justice A.S. Bopanna very distinctly points out that in order to be convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence, the links in the chain of circumstances must be proved.

Principle for a case based on circumstantial evidence:

The court relied on the case of Sharad Birdhichand Sarda v. State of Maharashtra[2] which laid down certain conditions to be fulfilled to establish the case against the accused which basically meant that the circumstances that will be used to infer a finding of guilt should be properly established. It’s worth noting that this Court stated that the facts in question “must or should” be proven rather than “may be.” They must rule out every other possibility except the one that must be proven, and there must be a chain of evidence so complete that it leaves no reasonable ground for a conclusion consistent with the accused’s innocence, and they must show that the act must have been committed by the accused in all human probability.

In addition to this the judgment also orders that the case fulfills these conditions:

1. Various links in the prosecution’s chain of evidence should be successfully shown,

2. The claimed circumstance leads to the accused’s guilt with reasonable certainty, and

3. The circumstance is close to the time and context.

Mere suspicion not enough:

The court observed, in this case, that mere suspicion would not be sufficient. This was substantiated by the reference from the case of  Devilal v. State of Rajasthan[3]. The underlying principle was whether the chain was complete or not; whether it was complete or not depended on the facts of each case as revealed by the evidence for which there was no particular formula. However, when all of the facts were taken together, they must’ve led to the conclusion that no one other than the accused can be the only perpetrator of the alleged crime, and the circumstances must have created a decisive nature consistent solely with the accused’s guilt theory. Equal circumstances were observed, raising doubts about whether the appellant could be found guilty just because she was not wounded in the encounter.

Legal difference between the terms “must be” and “might be”:

The Court went on to say that mere suspicion would be insufficient unless the prosecution’s circumstantial evidence led to the conclusion that it “must be true” rather than “may be true.” It was noted that the appellant was found guilty by the High Court on the basis of a preponderance of evidence rather than a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite the fact that it uses the words “beyond reasonable doubt” in its closing line, the logic that precedes it is based on conjectures and guesses.

Normal Human Conduct is to save oneself first:

The Court stated that normal human conduct implies that when an event or accident occurs, the first instinct is to flee the area and rescue oneself. It held that if a fire broke out in the middle of the night for whatever reason, and the appellant had awoken and observed it a bit earlier, the reasonable response was to flee the premises rather than to check on other inmates who might be burning inside the house.

The bench also was not convinced with the motive of the accused and held that it was not strong enough for such a crime. On the issue of the appellant’s failure to explain the cause of the fire, the Court held that the appellant’s obligation to explain would have arisen only if there was any other evidence that the appellant was already awake and outside the house before the fire erupted, as required by Section 106 (Burden of proving fact especially within knowledge) of the Evidence Act, 1872.

Judgment:

The appellant was entitled to an acquittal, according to the Court, because the benefit of the doubt was in her favour. As a result, the High Court’s decision upholding the Sessions Court’s conviction and sentence was reversed.

Analysis:

“Suspicion, however strong, cannot take the place of proof”, was reiterated by the court in the above case.  In the dying declaration, the deceased did not hold anyone accountable and that among other reasons negated the intention of the accused. It was also noted that, even if there were enough and strong suspicion, the accused could not be held guilty merely because she wasn’t harmed in the incident. It is human nature to save oneself first if an event occurs and even though it is morally wrong to have not checked upon other inmates in the house, the appellant could not be held guilty for a crime as serious as murder on that ground itself unless there is irrefutable circumstantial evidence, which in this case was lacking.

Article Written By: Anamika Singh

College Name: NUSRL, Ranchi


[1] A.S. Bopanna, J., Criminal Appeal No. 1154 of 2018, https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2017/39376/39376_2017_43_1503_29202_Judgement_10-Aug-2021.pdf

[2]  (1984) 4 SCC 116

[3]  (2019) 19 SCC 447

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