New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday (March 5) acquitted six death-row convicts.
The court was revisiting its decision from 2009 in a rape and murder case, and held that the jailed men were wrongly implicated.
Deprecating the manner in which the police conducted the probe in the matter, the court directed the Maharashtra government to take disciplinary action against officials whose “lapses” allowed the real culprits to go scot free.
This judgment came 16 years after the six men – Ankush Maruti Shinde, Rajya Appa Shinde, Ambadas Laxman Shinde, Raju Mhasu Shinde, Bapu Appa Shinde and Suresh Shinde – were arrested.
In its judgement delivered on Tuesday, a three-judge bench headed by Justice A.K. Sikri also directed the state government to pay Rs five lakh each to the six accused, and asked the sessions court to ensure that the amount is used for their rehabilitation.
In 2009, a two-judge bench of the apex court had allowed Maharashtra’s appeal and awarded the death penalty to three accused, who were earlier sentenced to life term by the Bombay high court, and had also upheld the capital punishment given to other three.
Initially, the six accused were awarded death sentence by the trial court, after which they had approached the high court.
The high court, while deciding their appeals, had affirmed the death sentence awarded to three out of the six accused. It had commuted to life term the capital punishment given to the other three accused by the trial court.
After the apex court’s 2009 verdict, the top court had allowed the convicts plea to be heard afresh and delivered its verdict on Tuesday.
Negligence, procedural lapses in the case
The court “strongly deprecated” the conduct of investigating agency in probing the case and held that due to lapses in not conducting investigation properly, the real culprits have “gone out of the clutches of law and got scot free”.
The bench, also comprising Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and M.R. Shah, directed the chief secretary of Maharashtra to enquire into the matter and take departmental action against erring police officials, who are still in service, for their “sheer negligence and culpable lapses”.
The six men were accused of committing five murders and raping a woman (who survived) and her 15-year-old daughter (who died) in June 2003.
The apex court, in its judgement, observed that “murder and rape is indeed a reprehensive act and every perpetrator should be punished”.
“The conviction and sentence imposed by the High Court cannot be sustained. The prosecution has failed to prove the case against the accused beyond reasonable doubt. Therefore, we have no other alternative, but to acquit the accused for the offences for which they are convicted,” it said.
“We direct the Chief Secretary, Home Department, State of Maharashtra to look into the matter and identify such erring officers/officials responsible for failure of a prosecution case, on account of sheer negligence or because of culpable lapses, real culprits are out of the clutches of law and because of whose lapses the case has resulted into acquittal in a case where five persons were killed brutally and one lady was subjected to even rape,” the bench said.
“Therefore, we direct the Chief Secretary, Home Department, State of Maharashtra to enquire into the matter and take departmental action against those erring officers/officials, if those officers/officials are still in service. The instant direction shall be given effect to within a period three months from today,” it said.
The bench also said that because of such lapses and in not conducting the investigation insofar as those four persons who were identified by the surviving woman in 2003, the real culprits have gone out of the clutches of the law.
The apex court said there was a serious lapse on the part of the investigating agency, which has affected the fair investigation and fair trial, and it was of the opinion that the same was violative of fundamental rights of the accused under the constitution.
The death penalty in India
As The Wire has reported before, death sentences are often reversed in India – but only after the prisoners spend years on death row. According to the Death Penalty India Report, between 2000 and 2015, of the 1,486 prisoners sentenced to death by trial courts, only 73 death sentences – merely 4.9% of the total – were eventually confirmed after the appeals process in the high courts and the Supreme Court ends.
In addition, of the 1,486 individuals sentenced to death, as many as 443 – 29.8% of the total – were found by higher courts to be not just undeserving of the death sentence but actually to be innocent.
(With PTI inputs)