Without prejudice


T

he responses to the acquittal of Noida businessman Moninder Singh Pandher by the Allahabad high court in the Nithari killings case have ranged from surprise and outrage to acceptance of the principle that judicial punishments should be based on incontrovertible evidence. Pandher and his domestic help Surinder Koli had been sentenced to death by a special court in Ghaziabad for the murder of 14-year-old Rimpa Haldar. Koli’s sentence has been upheld by the high court. Both are accused in 18 other cases of killing of children, abduction, rape and even necrophilia. The serial killings had shocked the nation when they came to light three years ago. The high court had no hesitation in affirming Koli’s punishment as it felt that the crime he committed was ‘heinous, atrocious and cruel’ and was among the rarest of rare cases demanding the highest form of punishment.

The CBI, which investigated the case, had not charge-sheeted Pandher for murder but the lower court had made him an accused on the basis of circumstances. The high court has acquitted him because he was not present in the country when the murder took place, there was no evidence of conspiracy and Koli’s confessional statement exonerated him, though the house where the murders took place belonged to Pandher. It is difficult to say whether it was a case of failure of the prosecution to find and present evidence against Pandher. The high court could only assess the evidence before it, and it has also stated that its findings should not influence decisions in other cases before the trial court. When the court was not convinced of Pandher’s guilt it could only go by the dictum that an innocent man should not be punished, even if many guilty people go scot free for lack of evidence.

It is not common that a person who has been sentenced to death by one court is found totally innocent by another. That shows the wide differences in appreciation and evaluation of evidence by different courts and even the element of subjectivity that goes into verdicts. This possibility, as demonstrated by the judgment in the Nithari case, strengthens the case for abolition of death sentence. Pandher may or may not have been involved in Haldar’s murder or other murders, but the high court’s rejection of evidence against him shows there was a chance that the death sentence would have amounted to miscarriage of justice.

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