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Some valid concerns about the criminal justice system

Thursday, 5 December 2013 - 6:48am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

A couple of recent cases that have attracted media attention raise vital issues of how a crime should be investigated and how it should be presented to court. In public interest I believe that the Aarushi trial and the Tejpal investigation, in particular, deserve to be dissected clinically and facts disseminated objectively. Or else, the common man will continue to be baffled by the mystique of criminal justice matters and fed with either total lies or half-truths by vested interests. Such a situation could eventually erode public faith in the system and result in injustice to the innocent and unlettered litigant.

The Aarushi case is unique in many ways. One of the victims was a teenager, who has been subjected to calumny after her death that linked her with a servant who was perhaps 30 years older. Worse was the turn in the episode which found the parents of the girl accused of her murder (as also of the servant) and convicted to life imprisonment.

While many members of the public hailed the verdict, I find there are a few who question the ‘overzealousness’ of the judge and consider his decision as a miscarriage of justice. This was because the judge had only circumstantial evidence. He still went ahead and fixed the blame on the parents. This was perhaps one of the few occasions in the history of criminal justice in the country when the standard of ‘conclusive proof’ was traded for ‘more than a reasonable proof’ in order to justify the convictions.

Several legal pundits have referred to the many gaps in the prosecution story as reason why the accused should have been given benefit of the doubt. The judge in question is described as a man of undisputed integrity. What then impelled him to act the way he did?

One fundamental question: Is the complexity of modern crime persuading judges of our times not to seek absolute proof, but be content with more than reasonable proof that had no obvious holes or infirmities or an inexplicable break in the chain of events leading to the crime? I am inclined to believe that this is the philosophy that is slowly coming to influence trial court judges. A trial court judge enjoys the luxury of not being the final arbiter in such matters. There are at least two levels above him who could analyse the decision on appeal. 

In the Tejpal case, there is a not unjustified feeling that the whole matter had been politicized. But then there is the public perception that the police had been unduly lenient in not effecting the arrest in the days following the FIR that had been filed suo motu, instead of waiting for the complainant to take the initiative. It is common experience the world over, that when a serious complaint of murder or rape is levelled against a known person, the latter is immediately taken into custody and questioned.

The other nagging fear is whether the Indian police are effecting more arrests than necessary?

While this may not strictly apply in this case, the overwhelming feeling is that the police in our country are trigger-happy, especially when egged on by a political class that is at the helm of affairs. Contentious as these issues are and which form the basis for a lively public debate, subjectivity in criminal justice decisions seems an inescapable evil.

The writer is a former CBI Director

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