In the year 1935, the Bristol Azzizes convicted 21-year-old Reginald Woolmington of the murder of his wife. He claimed that the death was accidental. He was sentenced to be hanged by the neck till dead. The court reasoned that the case was so strong against him that he had the burden to prove that he had not committed murder and it was an accident. He took the case on appeal to the English Court of Appeal, which refused to grant him leave to appeal. They reasoned that a charge of murder presumed malice and therefore if he claimed that the killing was an accident, the burden was on him to lead sufficient evidence to prove it. He managed to appeal the order of the Court of Appeal to the UK House of Lords, then the highest court in England. It was there where he was acquitted three days prior to his execution. In the case of Woolmington v DPP  UK HL 1 a substantive principle of common law was first established. It is often referred to as the golden thread of British justice and this term was based on what Lord Sanky said when he delivered the unanimous verdict of the Court. The judgment went something like this:
Throughout the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt subject to... the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception. If, at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt, created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner... the prosecution has not made out the case and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal. No matter what the charge or where the trial, the principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained.
This principle is also found in the law of India, which incorporates the common law principle. It is a fundamental principle in International Human Rights law as well. We call it the presumption of innocence. The prosecution in every criminal case must prove the charge beyond all reasonable doubt. If there is doubt at the end of the trial, then the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal as a matter of right.
On Thursday afternoon the Allahabad High Court set aside the conviction of the parents of Aarushi Talwar who had earlier been convicted of her murder. The trial court had said the circumstantial evidence pointed to the crime being an honour killing and since she was the last seen with her parents, and there was evidence that her parents may have found her in a compromising position with the house help Hemraj, there was sufficient evidence for the conviction to be sustained. The relationship with the house help gave them motive and the last seen principle was applied to sustain circumstantial evidence that they killed her.
The high court disagreed and said that there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction. One of the key failures in the CBI's case was that they failed to establish a clear chain of events that were backed up by evidence. They failed to establish how the murder could have been committed and also failed to establish the links between the inception of the motive for the murder and the actual act. There was nothing but circumstantial evidence to prove that they saw Aarushi and the house help in a compromising position.
The CBI in December of 2010 had told the trial court that there was no evidence in the case but it suspected Rajesh Talwar of the murder. The court refused to close the case and since the CBI found no evidence of the home being broken into, they started working on the theory that this was an inside job.
Circumstantial evidence is as the name suggests at best circumstantial, so unless you can establish the circumstances, it doesn't carry much sway. It was vital for the CBI to establish a clear sequence of events that night that such that the chain would only point to the parents as being the only possible people who could have committed the act. The CBI failed to do so.
In order to fully appreciate the goof-ups of the CBI during the investigation a detailed analysis of the high court judgment is required. But one thing is for sure, the burden is on the state to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that a person is guilty. The number of goof-ups by the CBI in this matter probably made that difficult. Indian law is black and white. You can either be guilty or not guilty. But there can be no declaration of innocence. The shadow of this trial will follow the parents for life. The prosecution still needs to toe the line set by the golden thread.
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Updated Date: Oct 12, 2017 22:32:16 IST