Conviction Can Be Based On Sole Eye Witness Testimony Only If He Is Wholly Reliable

In a well-balanced, well-analysed, well-articulated, well-reasoned and well-framed judgment titled Amar Singh vs The State (NCT Of Delhi) in Criminal Appeal No. 335 of 2015, delivered as recently as on October 12, 2020, the Supreme Court has laid down in no uncertain terms that conviction can be based on the testimony of a single eye witness so long he is found to be wholly reliable. The three-Judge Bench of Apex Court comprising of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Justice Aniruddha Bose and Justice Krishna Murari observed thus while setting aside the concurrent conviction of murder accused observing that the conduct of the sole testimony of one eye witness in this case was unnatural and therefore highly unsafe without corroboration from other piece of evidence. Very rightly so!

To start with, the ball is set rolling in para 1 of this latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment authored by Justice Krishna Murari for himself, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Aniruddha Bose wherein it is observed that, “These two appeals are directed against the impugned judgment and order dated 09.05.2014 passed by the High Court of Delhi dismissing the criminal appeal filed by the appellants challenging the order of conviction against them whereby the appellants were convicted under Section 302 IPC r/w Section 34 IPC. One of the accused-appellant, Inderjeet Singh, was also held guilty and convicted under Section 27 of the Arms Act and were sentenced to undergo imprisonment for life and a fine of Rs 5000/- each, in default of payment to undergo Simple Imprisonment for 3 months. Accused-appellant, Inderjeet Singh, was also sentenced to Rigorous Imprisonment for one year under Section 27 of the Arms Act and this sentence was to run concurrently with the sentence already awarded to him under Section 302 IPC.”

While elaborating on the prosecution case, it is then disclosed in para 2 that, “In brief the prosecution case is that on 03.08.1990, on receipt of DD No. 18-A, SI Joginder Singh along with SI Gian Singh, Constable Jai Singh and Constable Narender Pal reached Sukhdev Market on the street which goes to Qumayun Restaurant, where near House No. H-801 a crowd was gathered and they came to know that injured had been removed to AIIMS in a PCR vehicle. Leaving Constable Narender Pal at the spot SI Joginder Singh along with other police officials reached AIIMS, where he came to know that injured Devinder Singh @ Ladli was declared as ‘brought dead’. Two brothers of the deceased, namely, Parminder Singh and Amar Singh, were found present in the hospital. Parminder Singh gave his statement to SI Joginder Singh to the effect that he has six brothers and his three brothers, namely, Harinder Singh, Ravinder Singh and Rajinder Singh reside with his mother Smt. Prakash Wati at House No. 826/5, Arjun Nagar. His eldest brother Amar Singh resides at House No. 15/88, Geeta Colony along with his family and he along with his family resides at 53/F, D-12 Area, Sector 4, Bangla Sahib Marg, New Delhi. His sister Saroj resides at 98-A Baba Kharak Singh Marg along with her family. About three years ago, one person namely Khazan Singh had been murdered and his brother Devinder Singh @ Ladi had been arrested for his murder and a case for murder was pending against him. He was released on interim bail from the Court and used to reside with his sister Saroj. On 3.8.1990 Devinder Singh @ Ladi came to the house of his mother and his other brother Amar Singh also reached there and they had their meals together. At about 10:00 PM, Parminder Singh along with his brothers, Devinder Singh @ Ladi and Amar Singh left the house for going to their respective houses. They were moving on foot towards taxi stand situated in Sukhdev Market. He and Amar Singh were about ten paces ahead of Devinder Singh @ Ladi. At about 10:10 PM, when they reached near the corner of Sukhdev Market, they heard Devinder Singh @ Ladi raising an alarm Bachao-Bachao and on turning back, they saw that Amar Singh, S/o Likhi Chand and Shiv Charan, S/o Pooran Chand were giving hockey blows and one Inder Singh, S/o Khazan Singh was giving knife blows to Devinder Singh @ Ladi. His brother Devinder Singh @ Ladi fell on the ground and Inderjeet Singh gave him many knife blows. When they tried to rescue their brother, all the above three accused persons brandished their knife and hockeys and warned that whosoever will come to save Devinder Singh, they will also kill him. Thereafter all of them ran towards Bhisham Pitamah Marg, his brother Devinder Singh became unconscious. Many persons including Sujan Singh, S/o Ram Singh assembled there. After sometime, PCR van came and removed Devinder Singh to AIIMS, where he was declared dead by the Doctor.”

To be sure, it is then further disclosed in para 3 that, “On this statement, a case was got registered and investigation was conducted by Inspector Richpal Singh. During investigation, Inspector got the spot photographer, prepared site plan, seized one broken piece of hockey, one pair of dirty white shoes, one steel strip, sample blood, blood stained earth, sample earth from the spot. Inspector also seized the blood stained clothes of Amar Singh and Parminder Singh, got conducted the post mortem on the dead body of the deceased, recorded the statement of witnesses and collected the post mortem report. Inspector arrested the accused persons and recorded the disclosure statement of accused Inderjeet Singh @ Inder, who got recovered the knife, which was used to commit the murder. Inspector also recorded the disclosure statements of accused Amar Singh and Shiv Charan, who got recovered the hockeys, used in commission of offence. The recovered items were sealed separately in pulandas and were sent to CFSL. After completion of investigation, challan under Section 302/506/34 IPC was filed in the Court of concerned Metropolitan Magistrate, who committed this case to the Court of Sessions. All the accused persons pleaded not guilty to the charge framed against them and claimed trial. Accused Inderjeet Singh was separately charged for an offence under Section 25 and 27 of Arms Act.”

Adding more to what is stated above, it is then stated in para 4 that, “In order to substantiate its case, prosecution had examined 27 witnesses in all. All the incriminating evidence was put to the accused persons while recording their statements under Section 313 Cr.P.C., wherein they totally denied the case of the prosecution.”

Furthermore, it is then elaborated in para 5 that, “The Trial Court came to the conclusion that the prosecution had brought home the guilt of the accused persons and accordingly convicted them for murder punishable under Section 302 IPC r/w Section 34 IPC and sentenced them to Life Imprisonment. Aggrieved by the same, the accused appellants filed an appeal before the High Court. However, during the pendency of the appeal before the High Court, appellant Shiv Charan, expired on 12th April, 2008 and accordingly the proceedings against him were abated.”

While dwelling on the High Court finding, it is then stated in simple and straight language in para 9 that, “However, the High Court finding that the impugned judgment does not suffer from any infirmity or perversity which calls for interference, dismissed the appeal.”

After noting in para 13 that, “We have considered the rival submissions and carefully perused the record, it is then laid bare in para 14 that, “The prosecution apart from other formal witnesses produced three eye witnesses in support of its version, namely, Parminder Singh PW-1, Amar Singh PW-11, the two brothers of the deceased and Sujan Singh PW-5. PW-11 and PW-5 turned hostile. PW-11 was cross-examined by the prosecution. He simply denied having seen the accused persons giving blows to his brother. He also denied having stated to the police that he saw accused appellant Inderjeet Singh inflicting knife blows. He also denied having stated to the police that he ran to rescue his brother. He also stated that he was not able to see the faces of the culprits because of the darkness and thus cannot say, if, the accused persons are the same person, who killed his brother. This alleged eye witness specifically denied having told the police that the three accused had murdered his brother and he had identified them as culprits.”

On similar lines, it is then stated in para 15 that, “Similarly, the other eye witness PW-5 produced by the prosecution denied having seen two boys armed with hockey sticks and one boy holding knife attacking another boy. He also denied having identified the three accused. He stated that while he was passing outside the house of Doctor Bhardwaj there were 4-5 persons standing there and it was from them he came to know that person outside the house of Doctor Bhardwaj was dead. This eye witness also denied having seen the incident. He was cross-examined by the prosecution but nothing could be elicited therefrom.”

Most outstandingly, the Bench then minces no words to hold in para 16 that, “Thus the finding of guilt of the two accused appellants recorded by the two Courts below is based on sole testimony of eye witness PW-1. As a general rule the Court can and may act on the testimony of single eye witnesses provided he is wholly reliable. There is no legal impediment in convicting a person on the sole testimony of a single witness. That is the logic of Section 134 of the Evidence Act, 1872. But if there are doubts about the testimony Courts will insist on corroboration. It is not the number, the quantity but quality that is material. The time honoured principle is that evidence has to be weighed and not counted. On this principle stands the edifice of Section 134 of the Evidence Act. The test is whether the evidence has a ring of truth, is cogent, credible and trustworthy or otherwise (see Sunil Kumar V/s State Government of NCT of Delhi (2003) 11 SCC 367).”

Needless to say, it is then held in para 33 that, “On the facts of the present case it can be said without hesitation that prosecution has miserably failed to prove the alleged offences beyond doubt by adducing cogent and trustworthy evidence.”

It is a no-brainer that the Bench after considering everything then opts to hold in para 34 that, “In view of the foregoing discussions, we are not able to appreciate the reason given by the Courts below for convicting the appellants for the alleged offences. On the contrary, we are of the considered view that prosecution has failed to establish the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt. The incident does not appear to have happened in the manner in which the prosecution wants the Court to believe it had happened.”

Finally, it is then held in the last para 35 that, “Since, the prosecution has miserably failed to prove the guilt of the accused beyond doubt the appellants therefore must be given benefit of doubt. In the circumstances, we set aside the impugned orders of the Courts below and allow these appeals. The appellants are directed to be released forthwith unless required in any other case.”

To conclude, it merits no reiteration that conviction can be based on the testimony of a single eye witness so long he is found to be wholly reliable. In this case, the concurrent conviction of murder accused was set aside by the Apex Court observing that the conduct of the sole testimony of one eye witness in this case was unnatural and therefore highly unsafe without corroboration from other piece of evidence. There can be no denying it! All courts must be very careful while dealing with the sole testimony of one eye witness as one mistake can cost very dearly and result in grave miscarriage of justice which must be always prevented.

Sanjeev Sirohi