This article is written by Soumali Roy, pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy from LawSikho.
“Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”–William Blackstone
The licitness of the criminal justice system in India is largely based upon its effectiveness and fairness. We can judge its effectiveness by its ability to detect and investigate crimes, identify the offenders and dispense adequate sanctions. Its fairness depends on its precision and the efforts it makes to conduct a fair trial, to provide effective legal representation and protection to the accused at all points and its ability to convict the guilty and to clear the innocent. It is an established principle that grave injustice and consequential social injury is caused when the law turns upon itself and convicts an innocent person.
The term ‘wrongful conviction’ refers to the conviction of innocent people due to the miscarriage of justice. They are such organisational accidents where small mistakes combine and create disasters. They are anomalies to an otherwise efficient criminal justice mechanism and can have immeasurable consequences for exonerees. In a wrongful conviction, an innocent gets punished for an offence which he/she did not commit and the real perpetrator roams scot-free. At times a wrongful conviction is not overturned until after the innocent person has been executed. All this leads to the decline of public confidence in the justice system. In our criminal justice system, a victim of wrongful conviction suffers in two ways. Firstly, it is psychological since he suffers from incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit. Secondly, he is subjected to lifelong social loathing and condemnation due to the ineptitude of the criminal justice system.
My article aims to discuss how wrongful convictions are violative of basic human rights, the reasons and consequences of such convictions, the hardships faced by undertrial prisoners and the steps a state can take to undo the harm of wrongful convictions.
Wrongful conviction: a violation of human rights
Wrongful convictions are a violation of basic human rights. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) elaborates on it. It imposes a duty on the state to adequately compensate the person who has suffered punishment as a result of such conviction.
Article 14(6) of the ICCPR declares that if a person by a final decision is convicted of a criminal offence and subsequently, it is found that it was a wrongful conviction. Then the State has to compensate the person who has suffered the punishment due to such conviction according to law. Many States except India have amended their laws after following the above guidelines. Wrongful convictions are also violative of Articles 21 and 22 of the Constitution. Article 21 is there to prevent encroachment of a human being’s life or personal liberty except according to the provisions of law. Article 21 comes to rescue when a person is deprived of his personal life and liberty by the State as defined in Article 12 of the Constitution. In Maneka Gandhi v UOI the Supreme Court gave a new depth to Article 21. The court held that this right is not merely a physical one but also includes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity, free from exploitation.
Article 22 protects a person from illegal arrest and detention in certain cases. Clause 2 of Article 22 makes it mandatory to produce an arrested and detained person before the concerned Magistrate within 24 hours. Clause 4 says that a person cannot be kept in custody for more than 3 months without the permission of the concerned authorities. Clause 5 says that a person who has been arrested must be made aware of the grounds and be allowed to seek adequate legal representation.
Hardships faced by undertrial prisoners
In Indian criminal jurisprudence, an accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. t. But the situation for undertrials is very peculiar, they are often detained in jails for years only to know later that they are innocent. They are put through physical and mental torture during their detention period and exposed to inhuman living conditions. In a female prison in Raipur, Chhattisgarh the prisoners were kept without food and water for two consecutive days. The sick inmates were neither attended by any doctors nor were allowed to meet or speak to their families. The jail had inmates’ way beyond its capacity and there were no guards to escort the undertrials to the courts resulting in exorbitant delays in settling their cases. The poor inmates were not provided or made known about the legal aid facilities.
The undertrials often lose ties with their friends and family because society attaches a social stigma to them as individuals and community members. They are labelled as criminals without any fault of theirs. Time and again their families are also disgraced and humiliated. Even after they are declared not- guilty by the court their employability is severely jeopardised. What can be more unpleasant than staying in a jail estranged from families, friends, the outer world and society? Being detached from family and society damages the well-being and mental health of the undertrials. On top of that procedural delays develop a prolonged sense of hopelessness and helplessness in the undertrial prisoners. All these often lead to severe mental health problems like stress, anxiety and depression.
According to the Prison Statistics India, 2019 report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India’s prisons are overcrowded with an occupancy ratio of 14% more than the capacity. Overcrowding here means more inmates than the capacity or the sanctioned strength of the jail. It is the biggest problem faced by the inmates currently. In the last few years, there has been an enormous increase in the population of the prisons posing a lot of challenges before the prison administration like maintaining the safety and security of the inmates, hygiene issues, controlling the spread of diseases among the inmates etc. States such as Uttar Pradesh (167.99%), Uttarakhand (159.0%), Meghalaya (157.4%), Maharashtra (152.7%) and Chhattisgarh (150.1%) have reported the highest overcrowding rate. Looking at the above scenario it is quintessential to provide reasonable space and facilities in jails.
Case studies on wrongful convictions
- In October 1993, a 19-year-old boy named Naseeruddin was at his home in Karnataka, preparing for his exams. One fine day police knocked at his door and took him away in handcuffs. Initially, he was booked for a bomb blast that happened in an educational institute in Hyderabad then he was also booked for a couple of other unresolved bomb blasts. He was booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987 (TADA) (which was repealed two years later) for planting bombs, taking 2 lives and injuring 22 people in 5 trains. He was put into Ajmer Central jail after a confession. In 2005, he was convicted and given a life sentence at a TADA court in Ajmer. In May 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that his confession, taken in police custody was inadmissible and acquitted him of all charges. He was innocent and had to stay 23 years in jail labelled as a terrorist. When he was interviewed he made a statement that “23 years of my life are gone to prove my innocence.”Sab mujhse aage badh gaye, aur main sabse peeche reh gaya.
- In another case, in Assam, a woman named Madhumala Mandal was arrested and held in a detention centre for three years for a crime she had never committed. The case was of mistaken identity. The police arrested her in place of Madhumala Das, who had died long ago. The police didn’t even bother to tally the surnames before arresting them because they thought nobody would care about a poor and illiterate woman. Her physically handicapped daughter kept looking for her mother in the entire village. She was set free after a police officer was sent with a copy of the court’s order for her release. The despondent lady lost three years of her life without any fault of hers. The negligence of the police caused irreparable loss to her and her daughter.
Why do wrongful convictions occur?
The chief goal of the state and the courts is to see that no injustice is caused to people and adequate remedy is provided to victims. To achieve this goal in totality, the courts need to make sure that a fair trial is conducted. The process of investigation, examination of witnesses and production of the accused in the court needs to be done without any lapses to avoid wrongful convictions.
Wrongful convictions occur due to numerous reasons. Some of them might be:
- False or inaccurate testimony given by witnesses.
- Lawyers lacking experience in handling cases.
- The defence lawyers lacking the resources to vigorously test the prosecution’s evidence during the trial.
- Fabrication of evidence.
- Manipulation of the testimony of eyewitnesses.
- Presentation of false forensic evidence.
- Negligence on the part of law enforcement officers and prosecutors.
Remedies against wrongful convictions: steps the State can take to undo the harm of wrongful convictions
In India, there is no legislative framework for providing relief to the victims of wrongful convictions. However, one can invoke the writ jurisdiction of the High Courts under article 226 and the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution for the same. The Law Commission of India in its report on ‘Wrongful Prosecution (Miscarriage of Justice): Legal Remedies’ on August 30, 2018, suggested certain recommendations to provide relief to those who are wrongfully prosecuted:
- Legal framework: Amendments must be made in the CrPC to provide adequate compensation to the victims of a miscarriage of justice. The term miscarriage of justice is broad and includes within its ambit wrongful or malicious prosecution regardless of whether it leads to conviction or detention.
- Cause of action: The claimant must file a compensation claim stating the cause of action to be that of wrongful prosecution that ended in acquittal. Wrongful prosecution includes malicious prosecution and prosecution without good faith.
- Who can apply: A person can claim compensation for any harm caused to his body, mind, reputation, or property because of the wrongful prosecution.
- Special Courts: For speedy settlement of wrongful compensation claims the commission recommends setting up special courts in each district.
- Nature of proceedings: Summary proceedings must be followed in the special court for speedier disposal of the case.
- Compensation: The commission recommends amendments to be made to the CrPC to include guiding principles for the court to follow while deciding the amount of compensation. The guidelines must take into consideration the seriousness of the offence, severity of punishment, length of detention, damage to health, harm to reputation, and loss of opportunities.
Further, the commission also recommended that the compensation must include both pecuniary and non-pecuniary assistance. Non-pecuniary assistance includes counselling and vocational training which can help them in finding employment and getting admissions in educational institutions.
The purpose of a criminal justice system is to uphold, preserve and protect the rule of law. It must maintain order, ensure speedy justice, grant sanction and rehabilitate offenders. Our criminal justice system suffers from certain lacunas, one of them being wrongful convictions. They violate the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen of India and destroy one of the settled principles of criminal law that an accused is presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The principle of presumption of innocence has been incorporated in our criminal justice system to make sure that no injustice is meted out to anyone. The prosecution and the defence also must make sure that there is no malpractice, misrepresentation or corruption in the case.
The criminal justice system needs to maintain the equilibrium and make sure that it is providing sanctions to only the real perpetrators and no innocent is put behind the bars. The system’s main aim is to bring justice to the victims of crime. It can only be done when the actual perpetrator is charged with the crime he has committed and is put behind bars. It has to be kept in mind that erroneous convictions can cause irreparable damage to the personal and social life of the innocent.
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