Wrongful prosecutions are not uncommon or unheard of in the Indian criminal legal system, numerous cases concerning this issue are often not even brought to light. In a number of instances, it so happens that the prosecution itself is the cause for such wrongful convictions. The prosecution with an inherently prejudiced mindset towards the accused resorts to suppression of evidence in a trial which in many situations leads the case in an entirely different direction, leaving them in the lurch. Such cases have been persistently surfacing over the years not only in the Indian courts but that of the US’s and the UK’s as well. In a number of these cases, the primary cause for wrongful prosecution is the non-disclosure of evidence to the accused, this conundrum is thoroughly analysed in this article by first referring to the US and the UK’s current legal position and subsequently delving into its present situation in India.
Case laws and statutes governing fair disclosure of evidence to the accused in the US and UK
The issue concerning fair disclosure of evidence was initially brought to court in the US Supreme Court in the case of Brady v. Maryland (1963) where two suspects (the petitioner and his companion) were accused and convicted of first-degree murder and have been sentenced to death, however, a statement given by the companion which proved that he did the actual killing and not the petitioner was withheld by the prosecution. This was later uncovered and it led to the Supreme Court laying down the structure for the fair disclosure principle which expounded that non-disclosure of any relevant evidence was to be construed as a violation of the due process right of the accused. Further to determine if any information was relevant to the case the court also laid down the following parameters, the information was to be considered as relevant if:
- It was not disclosed by the prosecution
- It was favourable to the accused
- And if it was material either to guilt or punishment
In English law, preceding the implementation of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 (CPIA), the law of disclosure relied upon the common law and the fairness of the police and the prosecutors. The problem with this approach was realised in the case of R v Ward, in which three government forensic scientists misled the trial by concealing essential exculpatory evidence, which led to the wrongful conviction of Judith Ward for murder. During this, the police and the prosecution were trusted to disclose all credible information available to them regardless of whether it would lead to the conviction or acquittal of the accused.
However, by the early 1990s, a host of miscarriages of justice were uncovered after which the CPIA was drafted. Section 3 of the said Act stated that it was mandatory for the prosecution to disclose any relevant evidence to the case that it is in possession of, and which has not previously been disclosed to the accused. Irrespective of whether the evidence undermines the case of the prosecution it was obligatory for them to provide all the information to the accused.
Case laws and statutes governing fair disclosure of evidence to the accused in India
The provisions governing disclosure of evidence to the accused in India which have been laid down in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) have been drafted by relying on the common law principles followed in the UK before the implementation of the CPIA. The provisions in CrPC concerning this issue continue to remain the same even today irrespective of the fact that the source of these laws itself has been regarded as inefficient and amended later on. Section 207 of the CrPC regulates the law on disclosure of evidence, it mandates the supply of the police report and other documents considered as evidence to the accused.
However, when Section 207(iii) is read with Section 173(6) it stipulates that the police have the right to abstain from furnishing any piece of evidence, provided that it obtains the approval of the court. The legislation governing disclosure of evidence is inefficient in our country in a manner that the law paves way for abuse of power by the law enforcement authorities.
When a case of non-disclosure of evidence arises not only would it lead to a mistrial, in addition, the persons committing the act of withholding evidence would not be punished due to the fact that the act itself is not construed as an offence. On the contrary, they are authorised by the provisions of CrPC to commit the act of concealing the information. The added power granted to the police can be evidently seen through the language used, for instance, Section 173(7) reads thus:
173. Report of police officer on completion of investigation.
(7) Where the police officer investigating the case finds it convenient so to do, he may furnish to the accused copies of all or any of the documents referred to in sub-section (5).
Through this it is discernible how the convenience of the police has distinctly been given more importance while acting in complete ignorance of the rights of the accused to a fair trial. Over the years this utter ignorance has resulted in a number of wrongful convictions leaving the parties accused in the criminal cases in the lurch.
Over time the mindset of the police and the prosecution has become such that they have misinterpreted their duty of bringing justice to the victims to mean that it was of utmost importance for them to find the person guilty of the crime. This has led them into a distorted direction in which they go to extreme lengths of even concealing evidence and convicting innocent persons to prove that they have been executing their duties as law enforcement officers.
For instance, in the case of State of M.P. v. Ratan Singh it was alleged by the prosecution that the accused broke into the house of the complainant ensuing an assault involving dangerous weapons, which eventually led to the death of the deceased who was residing in the said house. It is pertinent to note here that the deceased died a few hours after the assault and filed an FIR before his death which was withheld by the prosecution during the trial, only an FIR that was filed later by one of the complainants was brought to the notice of the court. This crucial piece of evidence was capable of proving that the accused could not be held guilty without a reasonable doubt. After the misconduct of the prosecution was uncovered, the High Court acquitted the accused seeing as he could not be deemed to be guilty without any reasonable doubt.
Even though the laws regarding disclosure of evidence to the accused continue to remain the same there have been some progressive judgements that have recognised the issues faced by the accused and have put forth certain propositions addressing the same. An important case dealing with this subject is that of Manu Sharma v State (Nct Of Delhi), here, Sidhartha Vashisht also known as Manu Sharma was accused of committing the murder of Jessica Lal when she was working as a barmaid at a party in New Delhi. It was alleged that he fired twice as an intimidating act to get Jessica to serve liquor after midnight when she already mentioned that the bar ran out of it and also that the sales ceased at midnight.
One of the shots that were fired hit Jessica’s head killing her, after this, he fled the crime scene along with his two friends who came in with him. The issue of suppression of evidence arose in this case when it was brought to light that the prosecution has withheld the report of the Ballistic expert Shri Rup Singh which was favourable to the accused. To this, the prosecution has contended that since it had not relied on this piece of evidence it was not under any statutory obligation to produce this information to the accused.
Acknowledging this statement, the court first spelt out the duties of the public prosecutor by referring to the case of Shiv Kumar v. Hukam Chand and Anr., where it was stated that a public prosecutor must in any situation conform to the fairness of the trial of an accused as it was his duty to ensure fairness not only to the Court and to the investigating agencies, but to the accused as well. In contrast to what has ensued in the current case, it is also the added responsibility of the prosecution to put forth any piece of evidence that the defence may have overlooked that would legitimately benefit the accused as well. Accordingly, the duty of the public prosecutor was not only to ensure the punishment of the accused but ensure fairness in the proceedings of the court. While relating the current case to Section 207 and 173 of CrPC, the court propounded that irrespective of the procedure laid down by Section 173 where the expression ‘documents on which the prosecution relies’ is used to explain that all documents used by the prosecution must be furnished free of cost to the accused, the same phrase is not used under Section 207 of the CrPC, therefore this was to be inferred to mean that it should be read with a liberal and a wider interpretation mandating the supply of all the relevant documents to the accused, which in effect would achieve the objective of this section.
Lastly, along with the above-mentioned reformatory judgements, the Law Commission of India has also acknowledged the issue with respect to the rights of the accused, and has incorporated in its 277th law commission report a request put forth by the Delhi High Court in the case of Babloo Chauhan @ Dabloo v. State Government of NCT of Delhi to take cognisance of the issue of compensating and rehabilitating the victims of wrongful prosecution and recommended enacting separate legislation in pursuance of this.
Therefore, although noticeable steps have been taken towards reform, the legislation regarding the disclosure of evidence continues to remain the same and the current situation regarding safeguarding the rights of the accused is far from satisfactory. Regardless of the principles propounded in the landmark judgement in the Manu Sharma case a majority of cases brought before the courts even now take a starkly different approach in the trial proceedings which have in many instances led to wrongful prosecution of innocent victims. Therefore, substantial steps have yet to be taken in pursuance of protecting the rights of the accused and ensuring fairness during the trial proceedings.
About the author, Bhavana Suragani [2019-24] is pursuing B.ALL.B from Jindal Global Law School, O.P.JGU.