In a significant decision, the Calcutta High Court has commuted the death sentence of several accused individuals involved in the horrific gang-rape and murder of a 20-year-old girl in Kamduni, in June 2023. Additionally, the Court acquitted another accused who had also been sentenced to death by the trial court. The ruling has elicited attention due to its nuanced examination of the evidence presented in the case and the subsequent adjustments to the sentences imposed.

Judicial Bench and Key Observations

A division bench consisting of Justice Joymalya Bagchi and Justice Ajay Kumar Gupta, while delivering the judgment, emphasized certain critical aspects of the case. The trial court had initially determined that the murder and rape were premeditated acts, spurred by the victim’s alleged scorn towards the appellants, leading to their brutal rape and murder of her. The Court acknowledged the brutality of the crime, referencing the injuries sustained by the victim in her private parts. However, it noted that the prosecution had not convincingly established the appellants’ prior conspiracy to seek vengeance against the victim. Furthermore, the post-mortem report did not indicate any internal injuries on the victim’s abdominal area, nor did it identify any injury on the external pelvic part. The depth of the tear in the posterior fourchette, hymen, and vaginal tissues was also unspecified. As such, the injuries sustained by the victim could not be equated with the extensive and brutal injuries present in the case of Mukesh v. NCT Delhi (2016), a benchmark case used to determine death sentences. The Court’s decision was meticulous in considering these factors when evaluating the sentences of the accused.

Brief Overview of the Case

The case revolved around the tragic incident involving a 20-year-old victim, whose marriage took place on December 12, 1997, with Balvir Singh, the appellant. After their marriage, it was alleged that the appellant, along with his mother, Maheshwari Devi, subjected the victim to various forms of harassment and relentlessly demanded a dowry of one lakh rupees in cash. The victim, determined to seek help, communicated her plight to her father through letters, vividly detailing the ongoing harassment and dowry demands. However, on May 9, 2007, her life took a terrifying turn when the appellant forcibly took her from Kotdwar to Mangolpuri, Delhi, against her will. Tragically, on May 13, 2007, the victim was found dead with reddish marks around her neck.

Subsequently, the police registered an FIR (First Information Report) under Sections 302 (murder) and 498-A (cruelty towards a married woman), read with Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and Sections 3 and 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, based on evidence obtained from semen and blood samples, DNA material on the accused’s person and clothing, and witness statements that testified to the accused discussing their intent to “teach the victim a lesson” for not paying attention to them. Both the trial court and the High Court affirmed the conviction of the husband under Section 302 and Section 498-A IPC and his mother under Section 498-A IPC.

Critical Analysis by the High Court

The High Court meticulously examined the lower court records and re-evaluated the evidence presented by 31 prosecution witnesses, including forensic experts, neighbors, and defense witnesses who attempted to alibi the accused. The defense argued that the place of recovery of the victim’s body had not been sufficiently proved. Still, the High Court dismissed this contention, noting that the absence of any witness from the college did not affect the unfolding of the prosecution’s case.

The Court also upheld the validity of the confessional statement given by one of the accused, Saiful, to the judicial magistrate. It noted that the substance and tenor of the confession clearly militated against the defense’s assertion of a tailored confession procured through tutoring, coercion, or inducement. The safeguards and assurances provided by the Magistrate clearly ruled out the possibility of influencing the accused during the confession. Thus, the voluntariness of the confession was firmly established.

Moving to the DNA evidence on record, the Court noted that the prosecution had sufficiently established the connection between the accused and the victim, maintaining the chain of custody of biological evidence. Additionally, it highlighted that the defense’s questions regarding the DNA not being an exact match to the accused were insufficient to rule out the validity of this evidence. Instead, the DNA evidence served as a piece of corroborative evidence, substantiating Saiful’s confession.

Conspiracy to Commit Rape

The Court then delved into the question of whether the intent to commit rape by Saiful could be attributed to the entire group as part of a conspiracy. While noting Saiful’s confession and his exoneration of Ansar, it considered Saiful’s economic dependence on Ansar as a significant factor. The Court reasoned that Saiful, who had confessed his guilt, might have sought to protect his source of economic sustenance, Ansar, from legal consequences. This motive led Saiful to inculpate himself while exonerating Ansar, which the Court found plausible.

Accordingly, the Court held that all circumstances surrounding the crime, including Ansar’s control of the plot where the incident occurred and Saiful’s rape of the victim, indicated a common intention to commit rape and murder.

Involvement of Other Accused in Conspiracy

However, the Court reached a different conclusion concerning the involvement of other accused individuals in the conspiracy. Their confessional and exculpatory statements throughout the trial revealed that they had left the plot before the rape occurred. The Court considered Saiful’s motive for making exculpatory statements for Ansar but noted that he did not share the same intent for the other accused. Consequently, the presence of these appellants at the time of the occurrence and their shared common intention.

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