Graham Staines murder case

Rabindra Kumar Pal @ Dara Singh v Republic of India


The case was the sensational triple murder of an Australian Christian Missionary – Graham Stuart Staines and his two minor sons, namely, Philip Staines, aged about 10 years and Timothy Staines aged about 6 years.

Graham Stuart Staines, a Christian Missionary from Australia, was working among the tribal people especially lepers of the State of Orissa.

 The two minor children  were burnt to death along with their father in the midnight of 22.01.1999/23.01.1999. The deceased-Graham Staines was engaged in propagating and preaching Christianity in the tribal area of interior Orissa. On 22.01.1999, the Missionary Team after conducting different programmes in the village near the Church, retired for the day. Graham Staines and his two minor sons slept in their vehicle parked outside the Church. In the midnight, a mob of 60-70 people came to the spot and set fire to the vehicle in which the deceased persons were sleeping. The mob prevented the deceased to get themselves out of the vehicle as a result of which all the three persons got burnt in the vehicle. The local police was informed about the incident on the next day.

As the local police was not able to proceed with the investigation satisfactorily the same was handed over to the State Crime Branch. Even the Crime Branch failed to conduct the investigation, ultimately, the investigation was transferred to CBI. On the basis of charge sheet,  14 accused persons were put to trial. Apart from these accused, one minor was tried by Juvenile Court.

By a common judgment and order Sessions Judge, Khurda convicted all the accused and sentenced them for offences punishable under various sections. The death sentence was passed against Dara Singh- and others were awarded sentence of life imprisonment.

The death reference and the appeals filed by the convicted persons were heard together by the High Court of Orissa and were disposed of by common judgment concluding that the witnesses were not trustworthy and no credence should be given to their statements and confessional statements were procured by the investigating agency under threat and coercion. The High Court, by the impugned judgment, modified the death sentence awarded to Dara Singh into life imprisonment and confirmed the life imprisonment imposed on Mahendra Hembram and acquitted all the other accused persons. Special Leave Petitions were filed by Rabindra Kumar Pal @ Dara Singh, Mahendra Hembram challenging the sentences awarded by the High Court.

Against the acquittal of rest of the accused by the High Court the Central Bureau of Investigation filed Special Leave Petitions.

Counsel for the accused raised the following contentions:-

(i) Confessions of various accused persons under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 could not be considered to be voluntary on account of the fact that all the co-accused persons were produced before the Magistrate from the police custody and were remanded back to police custody. Besides all confessions being exculpatory and made after conspiracy ceased to be operative and inadmissible.

(ii) Inasmuch as recording of confessions of various accused persons was done after the investigation was taken over by the CBI which shows the extent to which strong arm tactics were used by the investigating agency.

(iii) The statements of eye-witnesses were contradictory to each other on all material points.

(iv) There were several circumstances which were inconsistent with the fire started by arson from outside and several circumstances consistent with the fire emanating from inside of the vehicle and then spread to rest of the vehicle after fuel tank caught fire.

(v) The Supreme Court in cases of appeals against acquittal had held that when two views were possible, one in favour of the accused should be accepted.

The Supreme Court held that identification of accused persons by witness in dock for the first time though permissible could not be given credence without further corroborative evidence. Though some of the witnesses identified some of the accused in the dock, without corroborative evidence the dock identification alone could not be treated as substantial evidence, though it was permissible. Counsel for the accused heavily commented on the statements of eye-witnesses which, according to him, were contradictory to each other on material points. By pointing out contradictions, accused contended that the presence of witnesses became doubtful. But the Supreme Court held that though contradictions were there but by and large they explained the prosecution case though they could not identify all the accused persons with clarity except Dara Singh and Mahendra Hembram. By virtue of such minor contradictions, the testimonies couldnot be rejected in toto. It was further submitted by the accused that confessions of various accused persons under Section 164 Cr.P.C. could not be considered to be voluntary on account of the fact that all the co-accused persons were produced before the Magistrate from police custody and were remanded back to police custody. It was pointed that beside all confessions being exculpatory and made after conspiracy ceases to be operative were inadmissible. Finally, it was stated that Section 164 Cr.P.C. required faithful compliance and failure impaired their evidentiary value.

After considering the various authorities on this aspect the Supreme Court enunciated the following principles with regard to section 164Cr.P.C:

 (i) The provisions of Section 164 Cr.P.C. must be complied with not only in form, but in essence.

(ii) Before proceeding to record the confessional statement, a searching enquiry must be made from the accused as to the custody from which he was produced and the treatment he had been receiving in such custody in order to ensure that there is no scope for doubt of any sort of extraneous influence proceeding from a source interested in the prosecution.

(iii) A Magistrate should ask the accused as to why he wants to make a statement which surely shall go against his interest in the trial.

(iv) The maker should be granted sufficient time for reflection.

(v) He should be assured of protection from any sort of apprehended torture or pressure from the police in case he declines to make a confessional statement.

(vi) A judicial confession not given voluntarily is unreliable, more so, when such a confession is retracted, the conviction cannot be based on such retracted judicial confession.

(vii) Non-compliance of Section 164 Cr.P.C. goes to the root of the Magistrate’s jurisdiction to record the confession and renders the confession unworthy of credence.

(viii) During the time of reflection, the accused should be completely out of police influence. The judicial officer, who is entrusted with the duty of recording confession, must apply his judicial mind to ascertain and satisfy his conscience that the statement of the accused is not on account of any extraneous influence on him.

(ix) At the time of recording the statement of the accused, no police or police official shall be present in the open court.

(x) Confession of a co-accused is a weak type of evidence.

(xi) Usually the Court requires some corroboration from the confessional statement before convicting the accused person on such a statement.

After considering relevant evidence and verifying  statements and requirements in terms of Section 164 Cr.P.C. the Supreme Court observed that in the certificate, there was no specific reference about the nature of the custody from which these persons were produced nor about the assurance that they would not be remanded to police custody if they declined. Concurring with the High Court, it held that, no exceptional circumstances could be brought by the prosecution in respect of the appellants other than Rabindra Pal and Hembrum. The Supreme Court also held  the procedure adopted by the investigating agency, analyzed and approved by the trial Court and confirmed by the High Court, could not be faulted with.

The Supreme Court observed  that all the eyewitnesses examined by the prosecution consistently stated that during occurrence the miscreants raised slogans in the name of Dara Singh as “Dara Singh Zindabad”. The story of the slogan was also mentioned in the first information report lodged soon after the occurrence. The slogan in the name of Dara Singh, corroborated the identification before the trial Court for the first time. Some of the witnesses even identified Dara Singh by photo identification.  Also all the witnesses  mentioned about the blowing of whistle by Dara Singh.

Though the trial Court awarded death sentence for Dara Singh, the High Court after considering entire materials found  that it was not a rarest of rare case, and commuted the death sentence into life imprisonment.  It reiterated that whether a case falls within the rarest of rare case or not, has to be examined with reference to the facts and circumstances of each case and the Court has to take note of the aggravating as well as mitigating circumstances and conclude whether there was something uncommon about the crime which renders the sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for death sentence. The Supreme Court held that as more than 12 years had elapsed since the act was committed, the life sentence awarded by the High Court need not be enhanced in view of the factual position.

Finally, insofar as the appeals filed by the CBI against the order of acquittal by the High Court in respect of certain persons, it was pointed out that when two views are possible, the one in favour of the accused should be accepted. The Supreme Court held that the presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of criminal jurisprudence. As there were weakness and infirmities of the prosecution case insofar as acquitted accused who were all poor tribals, in the absence of definite assertion from the prosecution side, about their specific role and involvement, the Supreme Court held that it was not safe to convict them.

Supreme Court concluded with the hope that Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of religion playing a positive role in bringing India’s numerous religion and communities into an integrated prosperous nation be realised by way of equal respect for all religions. It also observed that  there is no justification for interfering in someone’s religious belief by any means. The Supreme Court also held that there was no material to prove conspiracy charge against any of the accused. Thus criminal appeals  filed by Rabindra Kumar Pal @ Dara Singh and Mahendra Hembram and criminal appeals filed by CBI were dismissed.