Yesterday the Supreme Court upheld the life sentence granted P Rajagopal -the founder of famous South Indian restaurant chain Saravana Bhavan -and five of his aides for murder of Santhakumar in 2001. The bench of Justices N V Ramana, Mohan M Shantanagoudar and Indira Banerjee dismissed the batch of appeals filed by accused against the 2009 judgment of Madras High Court. The trial court had sentenced Rajagopal to ten years imprisonment under Section 304, Part I IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) in 2004, which was enhanced to life imprisonment under Section 302 IPC (murder) by Madras HC. The crime was committed with the motive of Rajagopal to take Jeevajothi, the wife of deceased Santhakumar, as his third wife. “Either upon the advice of an astrologer or having become besotted with PW1(Jeevajothi), Accused No.1(Rajagopal) had evinced a keen desire to take PW1 as his third wife, though In that regard, the Court observes that she was already married to Santhakumar (the deceased). To fulfill this desire, by offering her financial assistance and gifts, Rajagopal tried to get close to Jeevajothi, who was the daughter of a staff employed in Saravana Bhavan. Gradually, he began to interfere in her personal life, persuading her to break away from Santhakumar’s relationship. Rajagopal resorted to more devious means when she failed to yield. Rajagopal and his henchmen kidnapped Santhakumar and Jeevajothi on 1 October 2001 and were released after threats. They were kidnapped again eighteen days later. Jeevajothi was taken to a village where she was forced to go through rituals to make her leave Santhakumar. A hired goon Daniel was supposed to have killed Santhakumar, who was taken separately. Daniel had a change of mind, however, and he spared the life of Santhakumar and told him to flee to Mumbai. Daniel told Rajagopal a false story that Santhakumar was killed. But instead of fleeing to Mumbai, Santhakumar returned to Jeevajothi. Enraged at knowing this, on October 24, 2001, Rajagopal and his assistants abducted them again, taking Santhakumar and Jeevajothi in separate vehicles to various locations. Weeks later, at Tiger Chola in Kodaikanal, a dead body was found that was identified as Santhakumar’s.
Jeevajothi had lodged a complaint before the police regarding the first abduction incident, on which an FIR was registered on October 12, 2001. On November 20, 2001, another FIR for murder was registered after tracing Santhakumar’s dead body. One of the main points raised by the counsel for the accused in the appeal before the Supreme Court was that the second FIR was illegal because in the same transaction there was already an FIR registered for a crime. It was argued that the second alleged offense was a continuation of the first alleged offense and it was not possible to register separate FIR. According to the appellants, the investigation and trial on the basis of illegal FIR are completely vitiated. But on the finding that both offenses were separate transactions, the SC rejected this argument. “The time and place of occurrence of the two incidents are obviously different. Even there are different numbers of accused involved in the incidents. Neither can the sequence of events gather continuity of action, “observed the bench. It further argued that mere commonality of reason does not make the offenses part of the same transaction. “It may be noted that the motive for the commission of the two offenses may be the same to the extent that they were committed to enable the accused No. 1 to marry PW1, but the second offence cannot be said to be a continuation of the first incident merely because of their common motive, given that there are distinct intentions behind the two offences.”
The first offense to threaten and pressurize Santhakumar was committed. The intention behind the second offense was to get rid of him permanently, the bench noted. “Therefore, it is evident that unity of purpose and design between the two offences is also absent. Thus, it is amply clear that the murder incident is entirely separate and distinct from the previous abduction incident, “observed Justice Shantanagoudar’s judgment.Reference was made to the decision in T.T. Antony v. State of Kerala, (2001) 6 SCC 181 in this regard.
No further investigation for fresh offence committed during investigation.
The Court also rejected the argument that police should have carried out further investigation in relation to murder in the first FIR of abduction, instead of registering a separate FIR. “In case a fresh offence is committed during the course of the earlier
investigation, which is distinct from the offence being investigated, such fresh offence cannot be the bench, relying on Awadesh Kumar Jha v. Bihar State, ruled (2016) 3 SCC 8, was investigated as part of the pending case and should be investigated again.
First FIR can be used as corroborative evidence
The bench also dismissed the appellants’ argument that the first FIR could not have been used in the murder trial as evidence. The Court noted that the first FIR was not used as a substantive piece of evidence, but as a corroborating piece to demonstrate the crime’s motive.
Clearly established chain of circumstances.
The case was entirely based on circumstantial evidence. In the case of one of the accused Daniel, a mercenary hired by Rajagopal, the prosecution relied mainly on three circumstances to prove the accused’s guilt-motive, last seen circumstance and recovery of the dead body. The SC bench independently evaluated the evidence to “satisfy their conscience” and held that well-established incriminating circumstances. Jeevajothi and her family members’ consistent testimonies set the crime motive. They also revealed their testimonies that the deceased was last seen in the accused’s company. One of the accused recovered the dead body based on confession. In addition, the victim’s personal belongings such as the gold chain wallet etc. have been recovered from the accused. Jeevajothi found the dead body based on his clothes and a scar on his body. There was also a superimposition test to identify the body.
The appellants’ argument that body could not have been identified without DNA test was not accepted by the bench. Though the court acknowledged that DNA test would have been the best course, it said that there were other pieces of evidence which established the identity. It also endorsed the superimposition test, saying that it was quite often used in police investigation such as Nithari murders, Russian tourist murder in Goa in 2008 and Paharganj bomb blast cases. The Court termed the testimonies of prosecution witnesses ‘overwhelming, steadfast, cogent, homogeneous, consistent and reliable’. It noted that the accused had not offered any explanation to rebut the strong evidence placed against them.
“Though the burden had shifted onto the accused to explain the said circumstance as to when they left the company of the deceased, no explanation was adduced in that regard by the accused herein. Hence, an adverse inference has to be drawn against the accused. It may be noted that such no explanation by the accused provides an additional link in the chain of circumstances.”, said the bench. The discrepancies in their testimonies pointed out by the appellants were ignored as ‘minor’ by the bench. “It is worth recalling that while it is necessary to adduce evidence beyond reasonable doubt in all criminal cases, there is no need for such evidence to be perfect, and someone who is guilty cannot get away with impunity only because the truth can develop some infirmity when projected through human processes,” the bench said in that regard. “In our view,
the prosecution has demonstrated the complicity of all the appellants in killing Santhakumar by strangulating him and then throwing the dead body at Tiger-Chola,” the bench concluded. Rajagopal, who was previously released for medical reasons on bail by SC, was given time to serve sentence until July 7.