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Kamduni Case: Should Judges Be Swayed By Media Pressure And Public Opinion?

In a significant development, the Calcutta High Court division bench on 6 May 2023, overturned the death sentences that had been previously handed down by a sessions court to three of the six individuals convicted for the brutal gang rape and murder of a 20-year-old college student in Kamduni village, North 24 Parganas district, back in 2013.

This heinous crime had sparked widespread outrage throughout West Bengal as it bore unsettling similarities to the infamous Nirbhaya incident that occurred in Delhi in 2012. The victim, who was a second-year undergraduate student at the time, was abducted, subjected to sexual assault by multiple perpetrators, and tragically lost her life on June 7th of that year.

It's worth noting that these were among the first death sentences to be imposed in connection with a rape case within West Bengal subsequent to President Pranab Mukherjee sanctioning the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance 2013 following the Nirbhaya incident.

The division bench released the three additional convicts, who had already served their 10-year prison sentences, by requiring them to pay a bail bond of ₹10,000 each.

In January 2016, additional district and sessions judge Sanchita Sarkar pronounced these sentences, describing the Kamduni crime as an exceptionally rare and heinous act.

The bench, consisting of Justice Joymalya Bagchi and Justice Ajay Kumar Gupta, commuted the death sentences of two convicted persons to life imprisonment. Additionally, they acquitted the third convict, who was also facing a death sentence. The decision was made based on the defence lawyer's argument of insufficient evidence.

The judges expressed their belief that the trial court made an error in imposing the death penalty based solely on the seriousness of the offense. The state has not succeeded in proving conspiracy and prior planning beyond a reasonable doubt. Additionally, they have not presented evidence to counter the possibility of reform and rehabilitation.

The judges further stated that the appellants have exhibited satisfactory behaviour while in the correctional home. Additionally, supporting evidence suggests a strong likelihood of their reformation and rehabilitation. Therefore, the judges believed that an alternate punishment of life imprisonment for the remainder of their natural lives is a more compassionate solution that adequately addresses society's concerns regarding potential repeat offenses.

After the judgment of the Calcutta High Court, a media trial playing on emotions of the people has begun in some parts of the country questioning the verdict of the division bench of the Calcutta High Court and role of the investigating agency in the Kamduni gang rape and murder case and a scenario is being portrayed as if none of the accused persons was arrested by police, the case was not properly investigated, all the accused persons have been acquitted by the court and none of them was punished.

They apparently support the capital punishment awarded by the sessions court to three of the convicts out of the six accused persons convicted in this case, which the Division Bench of the High Court in its wisdom turned into life sentence till death for the two accused persons who were awarded capital punishment, and acquitted the third accused person. This despite the fact that capital punishment though not illegal in India has been abolished in many countries of the world including some developed countries.

The question is: Should the Judges be swayed by public opinion and emotion and media pressure in deciding the fate of a case?

The Supreme Court, in its ruling on Thursday, 19 January 2023, made it clear that a judge must base their decision solely on the evidence presented by the prosecution and the law. Emotions should not influence their judgment when convicting an accused individual.

"The court cannot base a conviction on personal feelings or whims. It is obligated to assess the evidence presented before it. If the investigating agency fails to perform its duties diligently or if the prosecution lacks strength, the court's hands are tied," explained Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, who presided over the bench.

The bench, including Justices AS Oka and BV Nagarathna, emphasized that they cannot assume the role of a prosecutor or defence counsel. Instead, their goal is to ensure fairness by creating a level playing field where both sides can contribute to the court's pursuit of justice.

During the consideration of appeals related to a caste massacre in Bihar in 1998, the bench made remarks. The incident, which took place in Bhojpur, resulted in the loss of 10 lives. Extremists from Ranveer Sena, a militia composed of upper caste groups, were involved and targeted victims from Scheduled Caste and other lower castes. In 2010, three accused individuals were sentenced to death by a trial court, but three years later, the Patna high court ordered their acquittal.

Senior counsel Colin Gonsalves, advocating for the informant in the case, expressed his concern later about the lack of justice delivered by Bihar courts in caste massacre cases involving victims from lower castes. He highlighted the repeated incidents of massacres targeting Dalit communities in Bihar and the subsequent acquittals. Gonsalves emphasized the urgent need for action to address this issue.

"That's why we must improve and reinforce the legal aid system," responded the bench, referencing their previous ruling to establish a committee consisting of three members, with the head being the member secretary´┐Żan officer from Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority. The committee's purpose was to ensure that all victims affected by the 1992 Mumbai communal riots receive proper compensation.

Gonsalves raised an issue, stating that members of the Dalit community often do not receive proper legal representation.
"We've been working on improving the legal aid system, as that's an important aspect. However, there are other issues to consider as well. For example, if a party hires their own counsel, we can't force them to accept a legal aid attorney. Additionally, if the lawyer doesn't perform their duties effectively, it raises concerns about inadequate or improper representation... So, at times we need to strengthen the prosecution side and other times we need to focus on strengthening the defence. Our goal is to protect and enhance the overall justice system." replied the bench.

Further, in a December 2015 judgment, the Supreme Court emphasized that judges should not let emotions and sentiments influence their verdicts, regardless of the severity or gruesomeness of the crime.

In a high-profile case, the highest court acquitted a man who had been charged with his wife's murder during their honeymoon. The Court ruled that the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence of the wife's cause of death. The victim, from a royal family, and whose father served as a judge in Bihar's subordinate judiciary, had drawn significant media attention.

The Patna High Court's confirmation of a 10-year rigorous imprisonment sentence for Rajiv Singh on charges of dowry death (IPC Section 304B) has been reversed by the Supreme Court. Justices V Gopala Gowda and Amitava Roy emphasized that while the incident is undoubtedly distressing, judicial decisions must be based on established legal principles rather than emotional or sentimental reactions.

Researches show clearly the influence of public opinion on Courts. It is a remarkable achievement for public opinion to have the power to sway a fast-track court in a country where justice is often delayed or denied. In this case, public opinion holds more influence than the rule of law itself. Surprisingly, even the Court has been impacted by public sentiment. Justice Dipak Misra, in his judgment on the Nirbhaya Case, eloquently states: " Gist-The appellants were driven by an insatiable and debased lust, completely surrendering to their carnal desires and indulging in bestial acts that can only elicit shock and dismay from society as a whole. This emphasizes the pervasiveness of this crime and its destructive impact on civilized society".

To what extent does public opinion influence court decisions, and is this desirable? The Supreme Court ruling in Santosh Kumar Satishbhushan Bariyar v. Maharashtra highlighted the significant role of public opinion in sentencing. It emphasized that the court should declare public opinion as irrelevant when determining punishment due to the dominance of media trials and political considerations surrounding death sentences. However, a contradictory viewpoint was presented in Gurvail Singh v. Punjab, where the Supreme Court considered public opinion as a relevant factor influencing decisions.

While media attention can sometimes be crucial in preventing miscarriages of justice and expediting legal proceedings, it's important to recognize that reliance on public opinion should not overshadow the need for evidence-based judgments and sentencing. Cases such as Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattu, and Ruchika Girhotra highlight the positive impact of media activism and public pressure. However, it is also crucial to ensure that arrests are based on solid evidence to avoid unjustly targeting innocent individuals simply to appease public sentiment.

Consequences of Undue Pressure of Media and Public Opinion on Police, Courts and Judges
It is crucial for judges to adhere to the principles of judicial independence and base their decisions on legal statutes, presented case facts, and established legal precedents. They should not be swayed by media influence or public sentiment. Upholding this principle is essential for maintaining a fair and equitable legal system, as it ensures that judges are insulated from external forces such as public opinion, media coverage, or emotional reactions from the public.

This commitment is rooted in several essential principles:
Impartiality: Judges have a crucial responsibility as impartial and unbiased interpreters of the law. It is essential that their decision-making remains unaffected by media influence or public emotions in order to uphold this imperative impartiality.

Rule of Law: The concept of the rule of law is highly significant in any democratic society. It emphasizes that legal decisions should be based on established legal principles rather than being influenced by the changing whims of the public.

Protection of Minority Rights: Safeguarding the rights of individuals and minority groups should be of utmost importance to the legal system. This duty remains even when these rights may not align with popular opinion. It is crucial that judges remain impartial and unaffected by public emotions in order to ensure fair treatment for all, especially minority populations.

Consistency and Predictability: Consistency and predictability are crucial elements of a fair legal system. It is essential for legal decisions to be consistent and predictable, regardless of public emotions. Making decisions based on public sentiments can lead to inconsistencies in how the law is applied, which ultimately undermines public trust in the judiciary.

Conviction of innocent: One potential consequence of excessive public pressure on the police to solve a case, especially when there are no clear leads or evidence, is the increased risk of wrongly arresting and thereafter convicting an innocent person. In order to appease public demand and avoid scrutiny, law enforcement may feel compelled to make an arrest even if it means sacrificing justice for the sake of appearances. This can have devastating consequences for individuals who become victims of a flawed and unjust system.

Pressure on Judiciary: The judicial system might face challenges when public sentiment and street protests overwhelmingly support capital punishment. In such cases, there is a concern that judges may succumb to pressure and convict individuals even in the absence of substantial evidence. This could potentially lead to the conviction of innocent people who are unrelated to the case at hand. Consequently, this would result in courts being controlled by public opinion and media influence, raising doubts about the fairness and integrity of justice delivery systems.

Effect on Independence of Judiciary: The impact on the independence of the judiciary must be considered. It is imperative that courts are not influenced solely by media opinions and public emotions. If judges make biased decisions under such pressure, it could lead to innocent individuals being wrongly convicted while guilty parties evade justice.

However, it is essential to acknowledge that judges do not exist in a vacuum. They are aware of the prevailing public sentiment and media coverage that often surrounds a case. Nevertheless, what emerges as crucial is the training judges receive to consciously disregard these external influences and make rulings firmly grounded in the law and well-established legal principles.

It is crucial for judges to make decisions based on objective analysis rather than public sentiments or media influence. Allowing external emotions or coverage to sway judicial rulings would undermine the integrity of the legal system and increase the risk of wrongful convictions and unfair punishments. Therefore, it is imperative that the legal system ensures that judges are protected from such external pressures, thereby upholding principles of fairness, justice, and the rule of law.

References:
  1. https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/kolkata-news/calcutta-hc-sets-aside-death-sentences-in-2013-kamduni-gang-rape-and-murder-101696600357046.html
  2. https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/delhi-news/courts-can-t-convict-on-emotions-bound-by-evidence-says-top-court-101674151837850.html
  3. https://www.dailypioneer.com/2015/sunday-edition/dont-let-emotions-sway-judgement-sc-to-judges.html
  4. https://www.lexquest.in/judiciary-media-public-opinion-overview/

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