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SC Can Interfere With the Order of the Acquittal If the Acquittal of an Accused Would Lead to a Significant Miscarriage of Justice: SC

Introduction: The Supreme Court’s recent judgment in the case of State of Punjab vs Gurpreet Singh & Ors has elucidated the circumstances under which the apex court can interfere with an order of acquittal. This article delves into the details of the case, the court’s reasoning, and the broader implications of its decision.

Without mincing any words and laying down explicitly when the Apex Court can interfere with the order of acquittal, the Supreme Court in a most learned, laudable, landmark, logical and latest judgment titled State of Punjab vs Gurpreet Singh & Ors in Criminal Appeal Nos. 664665/2024 and cited in Neutral Citation No.: 2024 INSC 154 that was pronounced as recently as on March 6, 2024 in the exercise of its criminal appellate jurisdiction has minced just no words to hold unequivocally that Supreme Court can interfere with the order of the acquittal if the acquittal of an accused would lead to a significant miscarriage of justice. It must be mentioned here that the Apex Court Bench comprising of Justices Surya Kant and K.V. Viswanathan was dealing with the appeal that had challenged the judgment that was passed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Supreme Court opined that the investigating officer failed to provide a clear explanation of how the respondents were connected to the crime during the investigation. It also must be noted that the Supreme Court opined that the investigating officer failed to provide a clear explanation of how the respondents were connected to the crime during the investigation.

We also need to note that there was no convincing evidence implicating them as co-accused. There was a lack of any substantial proof indicating that the respondents had meetings with Gurpreet Singh or conspired with him to execute the crime. Furthermore, there was no specific motive attributed to them in relation to the offence. Quite naturally, we see that in view of the above, the Apex Court Bench thus allowed the appeal in part and so also restored the order of the Trial Court convicting Gurpreet Singh and sentencing him to life imprisonment.

At the very outset, this remarkable, robust, rational and recent judgment authored by Hon’ble Mr Justice Surya Kant for a Bench of the Apex Court comprising of himself and Hon’ble Mr Justice KV Viswanathan after condoning delay and granting leave as pointed in para 1 and 2 then puts forth in para 3 that, “These appeals are directed against the judgment dated 05.12.2019 passed by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana at Chandigarh (hereinafter, ‘High Court’), allowing Criminal Appeal, CRAD1606DB2015 (O&M) filed by Gurpreet Singh, Kashmira Singh and Jagdeep Singh (Respondent Nos. 13) and Criminal Revision, CRR2942-2015 (O&M) filed by Harpreet Singh against their conviction awarded by the Learned Additional Sessions Judge, Ludhiana (hereinafter, ‘Trial Court’) vide judgments dated 29.05.2015 and 02.07.2015 respectively. The High Court has, through the impugned judgment, acquitted all the four Respondents of the charges under Section 302 read with Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter, ‘IPC’).”

Needless to say, the Bench then states in para 4 that, “At this juncture, it is imperative to delve into the factual matrix to set out the context of the present proceedings.”

To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in para 5 while laying bare the facts of the case that, “FIR No. 100 dated 18.07.2012 was registered at Police Station City Jagraon, District Ludhiana Rural under Sections 302 and 34 of IPC and Sections 25, 27, 54 and 59 of the Arms Act, 1959. The subject FIR was lodged on the statement of Gursewak Singh (P.W.2), the Complainant, who stated that his elder daughter, Kirandeep Kaur, was married to Gurpreet Singh (main accused) in the year 2009 and they got divorced in the year 2011. On 18.07.2012, at about 1.30 p.m., the Complainant was taking rest in his bedroom while his wife, Amarjit Kaur and their son and younger daughter were on the first floor. At the exact time of the incident, the Complainant received information from Amarjit Kaur, who was standing on the stairs that someone was calling for him. The Complainant opened the drawing room door to check the main gate, wherein he saw Gurpreet Singh accompanied by an unidentified individual, who had entered the porch by jumping the compound wall. Gurpreet Singh was armed with a pistol, while the unidentified person held a hockey stick. No sooner did the Complainant open the room door Gurpreet Singh shot at the Complainant’s wife, Amarjit Kaur, under the right ear from a close range. When the Complainant accessed the main gate, he saw brothers of Gurpreet Singh, namely, Harpreet Singh and Joga Singh (sons of Puran Singh r/o Bhodipura), standing there besides an Innova car. The Complainant shouted at them and tried to catch hold of the assailants, but they crossed the main gate and fled in the Innova car. The reasons for enmity, according to the Complainant, was that the daughter of the Complainant, Kirandeep Kaur, had cleared the IELTS exam and had shifted to Australia. Gurpreet Singh also wanted to settle in Australia, but due to their divorce, his dreams were shattered and he blamed Amarjit Kaur, the wife of the Complainant to be responsible for the divorce.”

As we see, the Bench then discloses in para 6 that, “The prosecution examined as many as 10 witnesses to bring the guilt home, including Gursewak Singh, P.W.2 (the complainant) and his daughter, Harmandeep Kaur (P.W.3), both eyewitnesses. The entire case of the prosecution is based upon the version of these two eyewitnesses, who claimed that the murder took place in the broad daylight in front of them.”

As it turned out, the Bench enunciates in para 7 that, “The Trial Court, having found the version of the two eyewitnesses to be trustworthy, which was duly corroborated by the medical evidence and the recovery of the weapon, held Gurpreet Singh guilty of the offence under Section 302 IPC, whereas his coaccused were held guilty for the offence under Section 302/34 IPC. All of them were sentenced to undergo life imprisonment.”

Do note, the Bench notes in para 8 that, “The High Court, vide the impugned judgment, disbelieved the version of Gursewak Singh (P.W.2, the Complainant) and his daughter, Harmandeep Kaur (P.W.3), primarily for the reasons that (i) Gursewak Singh (P.W.2) had gone for the medical checkup of his son to a hospital in Jagraon. It was not possible for him to reach back Doraha at the time of occurrence, as the distance was of about 70 kms. (ii) Gursewak Singh (P.W.2) failed to disclose the names of the coaccused, Harpreet Singh and Kashmira Singh, in his first version, and he is stated to have re-collected their names after about five hours, (iii) It is doubtful that Harmandeep Kaur (P.W.3) would be attending her classes from her parental house rather than from her in-laws house since she got married only a few months ago, (iv) No Test Identification Parade was conducted, (v) There is a great mystery about the nomination of Jagdeep Singh, Harpreet Singh S/o Veer Singh and Kashmira Singh because, as per the testimony of the eyewitnesses, they were never named before the police, and even the Investigating Officer has also not disclosed as to how these persons have been nominated as accused. (vi) These discrepancies, inconsistencies and unexplained circumstances go to the root of the case and severely dent the credibility of Gursewak Singh (P.W.2) and his daughter.”

Be it noted, the Bench notes in para 9 that, “The High Court, thus, viewed that once the defence is able to cast a reasonable doubt on the story of the prosecution, the necessary consequence will be the acquittal of the accused.”

Quite ostensibly, the Bench observes in para 10 that, “Discontented with the acquittal of the accused persons, the State of Punjab is in appeal before us.”

Most significantly, the Bench mandates in para 33 that, “The contention that none of the neighbours came forward to witness the occurrence is totally illogical and a misconceived notion. The prosecution case is that the occurrence took place inside the house. When the police reached the spot immediately after the occurrence, the dead body was found lying inside the house near the stairs. It is, thus, natural that the residents in the adjoining houses did not see the occurrence. The shot was fired at close range, and, the people in the neighbourhood obviously did not come to know about the incident. No adverse inference can be drawn against the prosecution on this count. The time of occurrence, i.e. 1.30 p.m., also indicates that most of the people in the neighbourhood were inside their houses and could not be expected outside in the streets keeping in view the hot and humid weather of July as it prevails in the State of Punjab. We are, therefore, of the considered opinion that the reasons assigned by the High Court while granting acquittal to Gurpreet Singh are totally perverse and as a result of misreading of the evidence on record. In this view of the matter, sustaining the acquittal of Gurpreet Singh would amount to a travesty of justice and it, thus warrants interference by this Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction, which we invoke sparingly. Consequently, the order of acquittal passed by the High Court qua Gurpreet Singh cannot be sustained and is set aside.”

Far most significantly, the Bench then briefly stated, points out in para 34 that, “Adverting to the prosecution case against Kashmira Singh and Jagdeep Singh (Respondent Nos. 2 and 3 herein) in the appeal arising out of CRA-D-1606 DB-2015 (O&M) and Harpreet Singh, who was the appellant before the High Court in CRR2942-2015 (O&M), we are satisfied that the reasons assigned by the High Court in support of their acquittal are possible and plausible.”

In a nutshell, we thus see that the Apex Court ruled that Supreme Court can interfere with the order of the acquittal if the acquittal of an accused would lead to a significant miscarriage of justice. The appeal thus against Kashmira Singh and Jagdeep Singh is dismissed. So also the criminal appeal No. 665 of 2024 @ SLP(Crl)No.1853 of 2024 against acquittal of Harpreet Singh is dismissed. Very rightly so!

Conclusion: In conclusion, the Supreme Court’s judgment underscores the importance of a thorough examination of evidence in criminal proceedings. While acquittals are not to be interfered with lightly, the court has the authority to intervene when there is a significant miscarriage of justice. This decision serves as a reminder of the judiciary’s role in upholding the principles of fairness and equity in the administration of justice.

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