2 Aug 2010

Role of motive in criminal prosecution: Supreme Court

In a recent decision the Supreme Court has explained the role of 'motive' in judging the liability of an accused for having committed an offense. Holding that though the determination of motive was not a sine qua non for determining the liability, it was nonetheless important to examine the motive behind the commission of the offense.

The Bench revisited the law in the following terms;
18. In fact, motive is a thing which is primarily known to the accused himself and it may not be possible for the prosecution to explain what actually prompted or excited him to commit a particular crime. In Shivji Genu Mohite Vs. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1973 SC 55, this Court held that in case the prosecution is not able to discover an impelling motive, that could not reflect upon the credibility of a witness proved to be a reliable eye-witness. Evidence as to motive would, no doubt, go a long way in cases wholly dependent on circumstantial evidence. Such evidence would form one of the links in the chain of circumstantial evidence in such a case. But that would not be so in cases where there are eyewitnesses of credibility, though even in such cases if a motive is properly proved, such proof would strengthen the prosecution case and fortify the court in its ultimate conclusion. But that does not mean that if motive is not established, the evidence of an eye-witness is rendered untrustworthy. 
19. It is settled legal proposition that even if the absence of motive as alleged is accepted that is of no consequence and pales into insignificance when direct evidence establishes the crime. Therefore, in case there is direct trustworthy evidence of witnesses as to commission of an offence, the motive part loses its significance. Therefore, if the genesis of the motive of the occurrence is not proved, the ocular testimony of the witnesses as to the occurrence could not be discarded only by the reason of the absence of motive, if otherwise the evidence is worthy of reliance. (Vide Hari Shankar Vs. State of U.P., (1996) 9 SCC 40; Bikau Pandey & Ors. Vs. State of Bihar, (2003) 12 SCC 616; and Abu Thakir & Ors. Vs. State of Tamil Nadu, (2010) 5 SCC 91). 
20. In a case relating to circumstantial evidence, motive does assume great importance, but to say that the absence of motive would dislodge the entire prosecution story is giving this one factor an importance which is not due. Motive is in the mind of the accused and can seldom be fathomed with any degree of accuracy. (Vide Ujagar Singh Vs. State of Punjab, (2007) 13 SCC 90). 
21. While dealing with a similar issue, this Court in State of U.P. Vs. Kishanpal & Ors., (2008) 16 SCC 73 held as under: 
“The motive may be considered as a circumstance which is relevant for assessing the evidence but if the evidence is clear and unambiguous and the circumstances prove the guilt of the accused, the same is not weakened even if the motive is not a very strong one. It is also settled law that the motive loses all its importance in a case where direct evidence of eyewitnesses is available, because even if there may be a very strong motive for the accused persons to commit a particular crime, they cannot be convicted if the evidence of eyewitnesses is not convincing. In the same way, even if there may not be an apparent motive but if the evidence of the eyewitnesses is clear and reliable, the absence or inadequacy of motive cannot stand in the way of conviction.”
Have a look at the decision.

Post-Script Rejoinder

Having written this post, the Supreme Court subsequently in State through C.B.I v. Mahender Singh Dahiya observed on the aspect of 'motive' in criminal prosecution. For the benefit of our readers, we are extending this post to include the observations to that effect.
23. Upon consideration of the evidence on record, the High Court concluded as follows:-
“Bearing in mind the legal position emerging out of the said authorities and having regard to the totality of the facts and circumstances which can be said to have been established on record, it is not possible to infer any motive on the part of the appellant what to talk of a motive so strong to commit the crime.”
In assessing the evidence, the High Court was aware of the legal principles that absence of motive may not necessarily be fatal to the prosecution. Where the case of the prosecution has been proved beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of the material produced before the Court, the motive loses its significance. But in cases based on circumstantial evidence, motive for committing the crime assumes great importance. In such circumstances, absence of motive would put the Court on its guard to scrutinize the evidence very closely to ensure that suspicion, emotion or conjecture do not take the place of proof (See Surinder Pal Jain Vs. Delhi A dministration and Tarseem Kumar Vs. Delhi Administration). We may also notice here the observations in Subedar Tewari Vs. State of U.P. wherein it has been observed that -
“The evidence regarding existence of motive which operates in the mind of an assassin is very often than (sic) not within the reach of others. The motive may not even be known to the victim of the crime. The motive may be known to the assassin and no one else may know what gave birth to the evil thought in the mind of the assassin.”
Again reiterating the role played by motive in deciding as to whether the prosecution has proved the case beyond reasonable doubt against an accused, this Court in the case of Suresh Chandra Bahari Vs. State of Bihar held as under:-
“Sometimes motive plays an important role and become a compelling force to commit a crime and therefore motive behind the crime is a relevant factor for which evidence may be adduced. A motive is something which prompts a person to form an opinion or intention to do certain illegal act or even a legal act with illegal means with a view to achieve that intention. In a case where there is motive, it affords added support to the finding of the Court that the accused was guilty for the offence charged with. But the evidence bearing on the guilt of the accused nonetheless becomes untrustworthy or unreliable because most often it is only the perpetrator of the crime alone who knows as to what circumstances prompted him to adopt a certain course of action leading to the commission of the crime.”
In our opinion, the conclusion recorded by the High Court is in accordance with the aforesaid principles. Merely because the respondent objected to the behaviour of Namita towards her male friends at the birthday party of her sister Shiela would not be sufficient to hold that the appellant had the necessary motive to kill her. It is inconceivable that the respondent would have married Namita only for the purpose of committing her murder, that too on the very first night of their honeymoon. Both the trial court and the High Court, in our opinion, have correctly recorded the conclusion that it was in fact in the interest of the respondent that Namita had remained alive. The success of his very objective to remain permanently in England was dependent on the continuance of his marriage for at least another year.

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