Rajasthan HC commutes death sentence, orders fresh probe into rape-murder of minor

Rajasthan High Court has said it is constrained by Supreme Court and unable to overturn conviction of the man.

Rajasthan High Court has said it is constrained by Supreme Court and unable to overturn conviction of the man. | Photo Credit: File photo

Nearly three years after Komal Lodha of Jhalawar district 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 now found DNA-based evidence that he 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 Lodha and directed the Superintendent of Police, Jhalawar, to reopen the case and investigate it afresh.

The court also directed the authorities to look into the role of officials who falsely booked Lodha, who was from a backward class and a minor at the time, with no means to defend his case.

The High 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. 

In addition, the High Court found that the trial court had not considered the testimony of one Deen Dayal, the principal of the government school where Lodha was once enrolled. He had deposed as to the true nature of the birth date in their records — revealing that Lodha was 17 years and 1 month old at the time.

Despite this, reliance was placed on the testimony of a doctor who estimated his age to be between 19-21 years old based on an X-Ray examination. The High Court also found that this doctor was not even a radiologist.  

The High Court noted that the trial court should have considered  the school documents as proof of Lodha’s age, as mandated by the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, which it had not, thus trying, convicting and sentencing him as an adult.  

Lodha 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. 

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 also noted that recovery of the underwear was shown to be made seven hours 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 May 11.

Conviction remains

However, despite finding that the accused 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.

According to the case history, after the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences 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 also upheld the conviction but referred the matter for sentencing back to the High Court.

Significantly, while commuting Lodha’s sentence to life imprisonment, the High Court noted that it could not find any aggravating circumstance against the accused. 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 also 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.  

So, while 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 added, “We with 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 sentence from death penalty to life imprisonment.”

The court also noted that Lodha has 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 State had failed to show that he was a threat to society or that he cannot be reformed.

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Printable version | Jun 27, 2022 2:00:06 am |