Supreme Court of India
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Jessica Lall: KV Viswanathan, Capstone Legal secure relief for ballistic expert

Murali Krishnan

The Supreme Court of India has quashed the perjury proceedings initiated against a ballistic expert in the infamous Jessica Lall case.

In a judgment delivered on January 6, a Bench of Chief Justice TS Thakur and Kurian Joseph J. held that when an opinion has been tendered by an expert while also furnishing the basis of the opinion and that too without being conclusive and definite, it cannot be said that he has committed perjury so as to help somebody.

Senior Advocate KV Viswanathan
Senior Advocate KV Viswanathan

Senior Advocate KV Viswanathan appeared for the expert, Prem Sagar Manocha. Viswanathan was briefed by a team from Capstone Legal led by Partners Ashish Kumar Singh and Vagish Singh.

Manocha was working as the Deputy Director in the State Forensic Science Laboratory, Rajasthan. His expert opinion was sought in connection with the investigation into Jessica Lall’s murder.

He had tendered a written opinion. Subsequently, he was also examined orally during the trial.  The trial court had then proceeded to acquit the accused causing a furore. Subsequently, the High Court had reversed the acquittal and convicted the ten accused.

The High court had gone one step further and initiated suo moto proceedings against thirty-two witnesses who, in the court’s opinion, had committed perjury. Eventually, the High Court dropped proceedings against a few of them while directing that proceedings against the remaining, including Manocha, to continue. Manocha had challenged this in Supreme Court.

Manocha had come under scrutiny because of his answer to one particular question:

“Whether both the empty cartridges have been fired from the same firearm or otherwise.”

In his written opinion, he had said that he could not give any definite opinion without examining the suspected firearm.

However, during the trial, the Court had put to him the question “whether the two empty cartridges have been fired from one instrument or from different instruments?”

He had replied to the same as follows:

“The question is now clear to me. I can answer the query here and now. These two cartridge cases were examined physically and under sterio and comparison microscope to study and observe and compare the evidence and the characteristic marks present on them which have been printed during firing. After comparison I am of the opinion that these two cartridge cases C/1 and C/2 appeared to have been fired from two different fire arms.”

The High Court was of the opinion that the oral evidence tendered by the appellant reflected a shift in stand from that of the written opinion which was apparently to help the accused, and hence, Section 193 of the Indian Penal Code would be attracted.

KV Viswanathan, who had represented Manocha had contended that being an expert and a professional, the appellant had only tendered his opinion in response to the specific question by court and that does not amount to even a borderline case of perjury.

The Court held that,

“Merely because an expert has tendered an opinion while also furnishing the basis of the opinion and that too without being conclusive and definite, it cannot be said that he has committed perjury so as to help somebody. And mere rejection of the expert evidence by itself may not also warrant initiation of proceedings under Section 340 of CrPC.”

It further held that the oral opinion was given by Manocha at the insistence of the court and was not his voluntary deposition and therefore, it would be unjust to attribute any motive to the appellant on that basis.

“It is significant to note that the appellant’s opinion that the cartridges appeared to have been fired from different firearms was based on the court’s insistence to give the opinion without examining the firearm. In other words, it was not even his voluntary, let alone deliberate deposition, before the court. Therefore, it is unjust, if not unfair, to attribute any motive to the appellant that there was a somersault from his original stand in the written opinion.”

The Supreme Court, therefore, quashed the proceedings initiated against Manocha.

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