The irreversibility of death penalty, and the likelihood of innocents being executed by the Judiciary, is one of the strongest arguments for abolishing capital punishment. Dhananjoy Chatterjee today joins the list of persons where clear evidence exists that they were erroneously handed death penalty by the Indian judicial system. Executed on 14th August 2004, nearly fourteen years after his arrest in May 1990, Dhananjoy was convicted for the brutal murder and sexual assault on 18 year old Hetal Parekh, a resident of the apartment building in which he worked as a guard, in Kolkatain March 1990. Almost 11 years later to date, a report released by two scholars of Indian Statistical Institute (Kolkata) exposing the shoddy and biased investigation and trial, provides evidence that points towards his innocence and wrongful execution. According to the report by Debashish Sengupta and Prabal Chaudhury titled "Re-Analysis of the case of the murder of Hetal Parekh: And the Judicial Killing of Dhananjay Chatterjee" all the mainstays of the police and prosecution’s story are open to question:
- Witnesses: The police case was based on certain witness accounts which are suspect. The police claimed that the apartment liftman had left Dhananjoy on the floor of the victim’s apartment. The liftman denied this in court; so much so, that the prosecution had to declare him a hostile witness. The police seizure list was signed as witness by a person who supplies tea to the police station. He didn’t turn up to give evidence during the trial.
- Recoveries: A necklace recovered at the scene of crime, which the police claimed to be Dhananjoy’s, turned out to belong to another apartment staffer who claimed to have given it to Dhananjoy. Again, police never bothered to tally the number of that watch with the one recovered from Dhananjoy’s village house and which the Parekh family claimed was stolen from their house.
- Forensic evidence: There were 21 stab wounds on the victim’s body, but no murder weapon was recovered.The victim’s body was lying in a pool of blood, yet no witness claimed that they saw any blood on Dhananjoy’s clothes. While semen traces were found in the victim’s vagina, no DNA test was done to ascertain if it was of the accused.
- Role of the family: The rape and murder allegedly happened in the very short time between 5:20 PM and 5:50 PM, while the victim’s mother was out of the house. However there was a delay of three hours between the discovery of Hetal’s body by her mother and the calling in of the police, allowing for tampering of evidence. The mother’s immediate naming of Dhananjoy as the culprit, the inconsistencies in the statements of other family members, and the fact that the family wrapped up their flourishing jewelry business in the city within six months of the crime and left Kolkata – all raise questions about the role of the family, and the possibility of an honour killing, especially given that sexual intercourse had preceded the murder.
- Police’s Complicity:The letter of complaint to the security agency by the victim’s father, alleging that Dhananjoy used to harass Hetal used by the police to establish motive, seems to have been written after the crime in order to manufacture evidence against Dhananjoy. The police overlooked the above mentioned inconsistencies in the family’s story, the corruption of the scene of the crime etc.
Several questions arise:
- Why was the police investigation so shoddy?
- How was the death penalty pronounced, given all these gaps in the investigation and the inconsistency of the evidence presented?
- Why did the trial courts not pay attention and allow legal ‘facts’ to be created?
- Why did the Supreme Court as well as the President, as it now emerges, unquestioningly accept the ‘facts’ of the case?
- Why did the courts not consider that he came from a very poor and underprivileged background and couldn’t mount a proper legal defence at the lower courts?
- Why was it immaterial that at the time of his hanging, Dhananjoy had already lived in the shadow of death for 14 years since his arrest? He was, in fact, punished twice for the same crime - a fact pointed out by those arguing for commutation. The popular frenzy demanding Dhananjoy’s death arising from the facts of the young age of the victim, the brutality of the murder, the alleged sexual violence, and the class divide all decided the outcome.
The erroneous judgment in the execution of Dhananjoy once more demonstrates the inherent class bias against the poor and the privileging of the rich, which takes precedence over proper investigation or an impartial judicial process. The appeals got decided, as they very often do, heeding the “collective conscience” of the privileged opinion makers baying for the blood of the accused.
The report makes clear that Dhananjoy Chatterjee is only the latest addition in the list of wrongful executions in India. In 2012, 14 eminent jurists including Justice PB Sawant, Justices A P Shah, B A Khan, B H Marlapalle, B G Kolse-Patil, Hosbet Suresh, Prabha Sridevan, K P Sivasubramaniam, RS Verma, and P C Jain had appealed for the commutation of death penalty in separate letters to the President in the cases of 13 persons on death row who they claimed were erroneously sentenced to death. They specifically drew attention to the grave miscarriage of justice in the case of Ravji Ram and Surja Ram who were hanged in the late 1990s and who according to the Supreme Court's own acknowledgement were wrongly executed.
While the possibility of miscarriage of justice is ever-present and no form of punishment is reversible, the death penalty forecloses any possibility of reversal. That the so-called safeguards – judicial review before the SC and the mercy petition before the President - are fallible, have been once again illustrated. The trial and death sentence awarded to Dhananjoy, as it turns out, was an act of judicial murder.
Today the least the apex court ought to do is to commute all death sentences and come out with a judicial dictum abolishing Death Penalty. The collective conscience of conscientious Indians asks for nothing less than the abolition of Death Penalty.
Megha Bahl & Sharmila Purkayastha
Date: 13 July 2015