In a significant judgment in Birbal Nath v. State of Rajasthan , the Supreme Court of India has reinforced the importance of considering witness credibility, even when their trial testimony contradicts earlier statements given to the police. The ruling highlights that mere contradictions between statements do not necessarily discredit a witness entirely. The Court emphasized that Sections 145 and 155 of the Evidence Act, which allow cross-examination based on contradictory statements, must be applied judiciously and cannot lead to a complete discrediting of the witness’s testimony.

The case In question involved an appeal against a judgment of the Rajasthan High Court. The High Court had acquitted the accused of major offenses under Sections 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Instead, it retained the accused’s convictions under Sections 147, 148, 323, 324, 325/149, and reduced their sentences to the period they had already spent in jail.

The case originated from an FIR filed in May 2001, where the complainant reported a brutal assault on his uncle and aunt by seven armed men in an agricultural field. The attack resulted in the death of the uncle and severe injuries to the aunt. The charges included various sections of the IPC, alleging a premeditated attack.

The primary issue before the Supreme Court was the credibility of the witness, particularly the star witness (PW-2), who was injured during the incident. The High Court had questioned her credibility due to minor discrepancies between her trial testimony and statements given to the police during the investigation.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the High Court’s assessment, emphasizing that the minor contradictions did not entirely discredit the witness’s testimony. The Court explained that the purpose of cross-examining a witness based on contradictory statements is to “contradict” the witness. Section 145 of the Evidence Act, in conjunction with Section 155, must be applied carefully.

The Court referred to the case of Rammi v. State of M.P. (1999) and cited the principle that not all inconsistent statements are sufficient to impeach a witness’s credit. Only those inconsistent statements liable to be “contradicted” affect the witness’s credibility. Thus, the Supreme Court clarified that contradictory statements may or may not be sufficient to discredit a witness.

The Court also discussed the importance of considering the social background and circumstances when evaluating a witness’s testimony. It recognized that rural settings, the level of articulation, and lengthy cross-examinations might result in discrepancies. However, these discrepancies should not lead to the complete dismissal of the witness’s credibility.

The Court further clarified that statements given to the police during the investigation (Section 161 CrPC) are not considered “evidence.” They have a limited applicability in court, and their primary purpose is to “contradict” the witness. The Court cited the case of Tahsildar Singh v. State of U.P. (AIR 1959 SC 1012), which emphasized that mere variations in two statements were insufficient to discredit a witness.

In the present case, the Court recognized that the incident might not have unfolded precisely as narrated by the star witness. Still, these discrepancies did not cast doubt on the fundamental facts of the case. The incident had occurred, and the accused were the offenders who caused severe injuries and death. Therefore, the minor contradictions in the witness’s testimony should not discredit her overall account.

The Court also addressed the High Court’s reliance on injuries sustained by the accused to suggest that the case was a free fight between two groups. It expressed doubt about the approach, pointing out that the trial court had not found the defense’sevidence credible. The Court criticized the High Court for magnifying the simple, unexplained injuries of the accused while downplaying the severity of the attack on the star witness.

The Supreme Court emphasized that the account given by an injured eyewitness should not be dismissed lightly, except when compelling reasons exist. It cited State of M.P. v. Mansingh(2003), stating that minor discrepancies do not corrode the credibility of otherwise acceptable evidence.

In the end, the Supreme Court set aside the High Court’s verdict, altering the findings under Section 302 of the IPC to Section 304, Part I, and changing Section 307 to Section 308. The ruling underscores the importance of evaluating witness credibility in criminal cases, even when there are contradictory statements, and provides guidance on the judicious use of contradictory statements during cross-examination.

In summary, the Supreme Court’s ruling reiterates the importance of witness credibility in criminal cases and cautions against discrediting witnesses solely based on contradictory statements. The Court clarified that the purpose of cross-examination using contradictory statements is to “contradict” the witness, and not all inconsistencies necessarily discredit their testimony. Additionally, the Court highlighted the significance of considering the social background and circumstances when assessing a witness’s credibility, particularly in rural settings. Furthermore, it emphasized that statements given to the police during the investigation are not considered “evidence” and are primarily used to contradict witnesses. This ruling provides valuable guidance for legal professionals and courts when dealing with witness testimonies and contradictory statements in criminal cases.

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