About three years after Komal Lodha of District Jhalawar in Rajasthan was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl in his village, the Rajasthan High Court has found the charge against the man to be false and yet has not acquitted him. The court instead commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. On DNA-based evidence, the court determined that the man was wrongfully convicted in the case.
The court also found that the police had purportedly colluded with the actual culprits to falsely implicate Lodha.
Making these observations, a Bench of Justices Anoop Kumar Dhand and Pankaj Bhandari commuted the death sentence awarded to the man and directed the superintendent of police, Jhalawar, to reopen the case and investigate it anew, as now there appears to have been two other men who committed the crime, who are yet to be identified and chased for arrest.
The high court directed the authorities to look into the role of policemen who falsely booked Lodha, who is from a backward class and a minor at the time, with no means to defend himself. The man did not even have the means to engage a lawyer, the high court noted, adding that he was represented by a public defender in the trial court and was represented by a pro bono lawyer in the first appeal in the high court.
The court said that the investigating officer had submitted before the trial court that he had recovered documents pertaining to Lodha’s age at the time but had no explanation for why they were not produced during the trial.
Further, the high court found that the trial court had not considered the testimony of a witness Deen Dayal, the principal of the government school where Lodha was once enrolled. He had vouched for Lodha’s claim that he was 17 years and 1 month old at the time of the alleged commission of the crime.
Yet, the lower court relied on the testimony of a ‘doctor’ who estimated his age to be between 19 and 21 years based on an X-Ray examination. The court found subsequently that this doctor was not even a radiologist.
The high court noted that the trial court should have considered the school documents as the proof of his age, as mandated by the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, which it had not, thus trying, convicting and sentencing him as an adult.
Furthermore, the Rajasthan High Court, in its order commuting the death sentence, noted that DNA evidence recovered from the leggings and vaginal swabs of the victim did not match the DNA sample recovered from Lodha. It noted that the DNA samples of two other men were recovered from the leggings and vaginal swabs of the victim.
The police had cited the recovery of an underwear, allegedly belonging to Lodha, to make their case. They had then claimed that the DNA from the underwear matched with the DNA samples found on the clothing and vaginal swabs of the victim. However, the high court found that the DNA from the underwear did not even match Lodha’s blood sample.
The court noted further that the recovery of the underwear was shown to be made 7 h after the arrest. “The role of the police and the investigating officer is also dubious…,” the court noted, adding that the DNA evidence “goes to show that to save a culprit, somebody else’s underwear was got recovered from the present accused”.
“To us also, it appears that two persons committed the horrendous act of rape and sodomy with a seven-year-old girl and murdered the girl and thereafter, with the help of the police shifted the crime to the present appellant,” the high court said in its order dated 11 May.
Conviction of accused man not withdrawn, only punishment lessened
Even after finding that Lodha was wrongfully convicted, the Rajasthan High Court said it was constrained by the Supreme Court to only consider the aspect of sentencing with respect to the charge under Section 302 (murder) of the IPC and hence was unable to overturn the conviction.
After the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act court conviction and sentencing, a double bench of the Rajasthan High Court had upheld the conviction but commuted the death sentence.
The state had then appealed the matter and pressed for the death sentence in the Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction but referred the matter for sentencing back to the high court.
Notably, while commuting Lodha’s sentence to life imprisonment, the high court noted that it could not find any aggravating circumstance against the accused man. It also said that the Supreme Court was not presented with the materials of the case like the DNA evidence or apprised of the fact that Lodha was a minor at the time. The high court said that no assistance was provided to the appellant (Lodha) to prefer appeal before the Apex Court. “…his conviction was upheld without hearing the side of the appellant on merits,” the high court said, directing the State Legal Services Authority of Rajasthan to prefer an appeal on Lodha’s behalf to the Rajasthan High Court’s Double Bench order upholding the conviction in the Supreme Court.
On the one hand, the State Legal Services Authority’s appeal, when it comes, may open a window of hope for Lodha. On the other, the police in Jhalawar will restart their investigation in the case and will also need to look into the role of officials, who allegedly framed Lodha.
The court said, “We, with a heavy heart and with hope that justice would be done to the accused, who has been sentenced to imprisonment till death for crime committed by two other persons, commute the sentence from death penalty to life imprisonment.”
The high court noted that Lodha had no criminal antecedents and has old parents, a wife and a five-year-old son to take care of. His wife was now working as a labourer to make both ends meet. Further, it said that the state had failed to show that he was a threat to society or that he could not be reformed.