Is it safe to rely exclusively on ‘extrajudicial’ confession?

Before dwelling upon extra judicial confession, it is incumbent to first of all understand what exactly confession is. It has not been defined anywhere in the Evidence Act. Stephen in his ‘Digest of the Law of Evidence’ (Article 21) defines it as: “A confession is an admission made at any time by a person charged […]

Before dwelling upon extra judicial confession, it is incumbent to first of all understand what exactly confession is. It has not been defined anywhere in the Evidence Act. Stephen in his ‘Digest of the Law of Evidence’ (Article 21) defines it as: “A confession is an admission made at any time by a person charged with crime stating or suggesting the inference that he committed that crime.”

According to Wigmore: “A confession is an acknowledgement in express words, by the accused in a criminal case, of the truth of the guilty fact charged or of some essential part of it. It is to this class of statements only that the present principle of exclusion applies.” Blackstone has mocked at confession as “the weakest and most suspicious of all evidence.” Bertrand Russel says in ‘Power’: “In India it is rampant……… For the taming of the power of the police one essential requirement is that a confession shall never in any circumstances be accepted as evidence.”

One can easily discern after going through the definition forwarded by Stephen that the words ‘suggesting the inference that he committed that crime’ fail to convey the real import. It is in this context that to clear the fog and see the true picture , we must also carefully read what was spelt out by Lord Atkin in Pakala Narayana Swami v Emperor, AIR 1939 PC 47 (52). He said that, “… no statement that contains self-exculpatory matter can amount to a confession, if the exculpatory statement is of some fact which if true would negative the offence alleged to be confessed. Moreover, a confession must either admit in terms the offence, or at any rate substantially all the facts which constitute the offence. An admission of a gravely incriminating fact is not of itself a confession, e.g., an admission that the accused is the owner of and was in recent possession of the knife or revolver, which caused a death with no explanation of any other man’s possession is not a confession even though it strongly suggests that the accused has committed the murder. Some confusion appears to have been caused by the definition of confession in Article 21 of the Stephen’s Digest of the Law of Evidence, which defines a confession as an admission made at any-time by a person charged with a crime stating or suggesting the inference that he committed that crime. If the surrounding articles are examined it will be apparent that the learned author, after dealing with admissions generally, is applying himself to admissions in criminal cases, and for this purpose defines confessions so as to cover all such admissions, in order to have a general term for use in the three following articles confession secured by inducement, made upon oath, made under a promise of secrecy. The definition is not contained in the Evidence Act, 1872; and in that Act it would not be consistent with the natural use of language to construe confession as a statement by an accused suggesting the inference that he committed the crime.”

It is imperative to mention here that the Apex Court too has endorsed the landmark ruling of Privy Council which I have just cited in the landmark case of Palvinder Kaur v State of Punjab, AIR 1952 SC 354. Justice Mahajan in this landmark case very elegantly elucidates that, “The confession must either admit in terms the offence or at any rate, substantially all the facts which constitute the offence. The admission of gravely incriminating fact, even conclusively incriminating fact is not by itself a confession. The statement that contains self-exculpatory (self-defending) or other matter cannot amount to a confession, if the exculpatory statement is of the same facts which, if true, would negative the offence alleged to be confessed. The statement which when read as a whole is of exculpatory character and in which the prisoner denies his guilt is not confession, and cannot be used in the evidence to prove his guilt.”

About confession, Phipson states that, “An unambiguous confession is in general sufficient to warrant a conviction without corroboration.” Confession is based on the latin maxim ‘habemus optimum testem, confitentem reum’ which literally means that, “We have the best witness, a confessing defendant.” In other words, it means that the confession of an accused is the best evidence against him.

Having dwelt in detail about what confession is, I must now divulge here what is well known that confession is divided into two classes: Judicial and Extra-judicial. Needless to say, a judicial confession is that which is made before the Magistrate or Court in the due course of legal proceedings. As for instance, a confession which is recorded under Sections 164 and 364 of the CrPC. A confession made to anybody other than a Magistrate or Court or any judicial body does not come within the purview of judicial confession. Let me add here that a confession which is neither made to a Magistrate nor in the course of legal proceedings and is made outside the court or before any person other than a Magistrate is an extra-judicial confession. In other words, confessions made to private persons, to police officers or to judicial officers in their private capacity fall within the realm of extra-judicial confession.

While it is true that a confession made to a Magistrate cannot be an extra-judicial confession but what we must not lose sight of is the fact that under certain circumstances even a confession made to a Magistrate can amount to an extra-judicial confession. As for instance, in R v Gopinath , 13 WR 69, it was held that a confession made before a Magistrate, in his private capacity is an extra-judicial confession. In Emperor v Sidheshwar Nath, (1933) 56 All 730, it was held that a confession made to a Magistrate while in the custody of the police is admissible. In State of Punjab v Harjagdev Singh, AIR 2009 SC 2693, it was held that an extra-judicial confession can be made to or before a private individual. It can also be made before a Magistrate who is not especially empowered to record confessions under Section 164 of CrPC or who receives the confession at a time when Section 164 is not applying. The Court also added that every inducement, threat or promise does not vitiate a confession.

Before proceeding ahead, let me tell you that while I don’t deny that extra-judicial confessions are considered generally as weak evidence but still if found reliable courts can convict an accused based on it and there is nothing wrong with it. There are many such cases where conviction has been given to an accused based on extra-judicial confession. As for instance, it was held in State of UP v MK Anthony , AIR 1985 SC 48 that there is no inflexible rule of law or prudence that an accused cannot be convicted on the basis of an extra-judicial confession without corroboration, though it is considered to be a very weak evidence. It was also held that it can be sufficient to found conviction provided –

1. It comes from the mouth of witnesses who appear to be unbiased and not even remotely inimical to the accused;

2. There is nothing to indicate that the witness may have motive for attributing untruthful statement to the accused;

3. The evidence given by the witness is clear, unambiguous and unmistakably conveys that the accused committed the crime;

4. Nothing is omitted by the witness which may suggest different conclusion; and

5. The evidence passes the rigorous test of credibility.

In Piara Singh v State of Punjab, AIR 1977 SC 2274, the Supreme Court while convicting the appellants on the basis of extra-judicial confession and underlining its importance held that, “The learned Sessions Judge regarded the extra-judicial confession to be very weak type of evidence and therefore refused to rely on the same. Here the learned Sessions Judge committed a clear error of law. Law does not require that the evidence of an extra-judicial confession should in all cases be corroborated. In the instant case, the extra-judicial confession was proved by an independent witness (Sarpanch) who was a responsible officer and who bore no animus against the appellants. There was hardly any justification, for the Sessions Judge to disbelieve the evidence of the Sarpanch particularly when the confession was corroborated by the recovery of an empty cartridge from the place of occurrence.” In State of AP v Gangula Satya Murthy, AIR 1997 SC 1585, the Supreme Court held that minor discrepancies should be ignored in appreciating the evidentiary value of extra-judicial confession. In this case, the record showed a discrepancy as to the time of confession when the words were spoken and the time appearing in police records . The Court said that this should have been ignored. There could have been an error in recording a.m. for p.m. The Court also said that at any rate it was not proper to jettison an otherwise sturdy piece of evidence of an extra-judicial confession on such a rickety premise.

Be it noted, in the famous Nanavati case, a statement made by the accused Nanavati to the Chowkidar of the building immediately after the shooting when he saw his wife in objectionable state with another man, was held to be an extra-judicial confession and treated as a direct piece of evidence of the guilt of the accused. In Ratan Gond v State of Bihar, AIR 1959 SC 18, the Supreme Court accepted the extra-judicial confession made by the accused in the house of the Mukhia of the village before some villagers. Similarly, in Sivakumar v State by Inspector of Police, (2006) 1 SCC 714 (723) (para 41), the Apex Court accepted the extra-judicial confession made before a village headman.

While craving my readers indulgence, let me further mention here that the principles which would make an extra-judicial confession an admissible piece of evidence quite capable of forming the basis of conviction of an accused have been well highlighted by Supreme Court in Sahadevan v State of TN, (2012) 6 SCC 403, in which it has been pointed out that –

1. The extra-judicial confession is a weak evidence by itself. It has to be examined by the court with greater care and caution.

2. It should be made voluntarily and should be truthful.

3. It should inspire confidence.

4. An extra-judicial confession attains greater credibility and evidentiary value if it is supported by a chain of cogent circumstances and is further corroborated by other prosecution evidence.

5. For an extra-judicial confession to be the basis of conviction, it should not suffer from any material discrepancies and inherent improbabilities.

6. Such statement essentially has to be proved like any other fact and in accordance with law.

For my esteemed readers exclusive benefit, let me tell them that the Supreme Court has in many cases acquitted the accused whenever it found that the extra-judicial confession was not reliable or was weak or there was no corroboration or on any other ground which it considered as relevant for acquitting the accused. I will discuss some of them here of which I am aware and which I would like to also share with my readers. In Keshav v State of Maharashtra, (2007) 13 SCC 284(287) (para 9), it was alleged that the accused made confession to the wife of the deceased, who neither disclosed it to anyone nor lodged an FIR in that respect. The Apex Court held that the said extra-judicial confession was not reliable. In Polyami Sukada v State of MP, AIR 2010 SC 2977, it was held that the witnesses of confession did not inspire confidence. Their evidence was slippery. It was also held that conviction was not proper even if there was recovery of weapon on the basis of confession. But at the same time, the Apex Court also held that an extra-judicial confession need not be corroborated in all cases and conviction can be based solely on such confession. In Pakkirisamy v State of TN, AIR 1998 SC 107, it was held by Supreme Court that the extra-judicial confession of an accused cannot be taken into consideration in determining his guilt when it is not put to him in his examination under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

It is worth noting that in Jagta v State of Haryana, AIR 1974 SC 1545, the Apex Court held that, “An extra-judicial confession is, in the very nature of things a weak piece of evidence. There should be no difficulty in rejecting it if it lacks in probability.” In State of Karnataka v AB Nagaraj, AIR 2003 SC 666, it was alleged that the girl was killed by her father and step-mother in the national park. The confession was supposed to have been made during detention in the ‘Forest Office’ and there was no witness present. The evidence of extra-judicial confession was rejected. In Baldev Singh v State of Punjab, (2009) 6 SCC 564, the Apex Court held that the evidence of extra-judicial confession is generally of a weak nature. It was also held that no conviction ordinarily can be based solely thereupon unless the same is corroborated in material particulars and extra-judicial confession must be found to be reliable.

As pointed above, it is one of the most fundamental canon of criminal justice system that an extra-judicial confession to be reliable must be voluntary. Lord Parker, C.J., in Reg. v Smith, (1959) 2 Q.B. 35 at p. 39 held that, “It has always been the fundamental principle of the courts that a prisoner’s confession outside the court is only admissible if it is voluntary. In deciding whether an admission is voluntary the court had been at pain to hold that even the most gentle threats or slight inducements will taint a confession.” In State of Haryana v Jagbir Singh, 2003 (4) RCR (Criminal) SC 555, it was held by the Supreme Court that in order to make an extra-judicial confession reliable it must be shown that it was voluntarily made. Apart from the extra-judicial confession being voluntary, there are many other factors that needs to be taken into account to determine its genuineness. For example, it was held in Chattar Singh v State of Haryana, AIR 2009 SC 378, it was held by the Supreme Court that, “Whether the accused was a freeman when he confessed , one of the relevant factors. The value of the confession is determined by the veracity of the person to whom the confession is made and who appears to testify to it.” In Vinayak Shivajirao Pol v State of Maharashtra, AIR 1998 SC 1096 , confession of a military sepoy to his superior’s as to how he killed his wife and disposed off the dismembered parts of the body substantiated by recoveries, held to be capable of supporting conviction for murder without more.

It also must be brought out here that the extra-judicial confession may be either in writing or in oral as both of them are valid. Now when it comes to written confession the writing itself will be the best evidence but in case it is lost or is not available, then under such circumstances, the person before whom the confession was made can certainly be produced before the Court to depose that the accused made the statement before him.

It is imperative that before accepting extra-judicial confession on the basis of testimony of witness, the credentials of witness must be ascertained and examined properly. If witnesses are not reliable, it is not safe to rely on the extra-judicial confession made by the accused to them and on that basis alone convict the accused without any other evidence or independent corroboration. It is also imperative that the words used by those witnesses must be thoroughly examined before relying on them. In Heramba Brahma v State of Assam, AIR 1982 SC 1595, where a confession was made by an accused person to under trial prisoners who were awaiting trial for a heinous crime like dacoity which itself indicates that they were criminals and the High Court straightaway accepted their evidence without resorting to examining in minute detail the credentials of witness and without ascertaining in any manner the words used, the Supreme Court held that the evidence of extra-judicial confession was unworthy of belief and therefore liable to be rejected.

Now coming to another moot question: “Does delay in recording evidence in any manner affect the authenticity of extra-judicial confession?” Delay in recording evidence certainly affects the credibility and authenticity of extra-judicial confession if it is not properly explained but if it is properly and satisfactorily examined then it does not make any difference and conviction can still be based on extra-judicial confession. In this regard, it would be pertinent to discuss what happened in Ram Khilari’s case. In Ram Khilari v State of Rajasthan, AIR 1999 SC 1002, the appellant was convicted under Section 302, IPC on the basis of extra-judicial confession made by him to one Ram Kishan , who was father-in-law of his sister. His conviction was rightly upheld by the Apex Court as there was just no reason to disbelieve the statement of Ram Kishan. It was held to be quite probable that the appellant might have thought that he could get shelter in Ram Kishan’s house and therefore informed him what happened. The delay of 20 days in recording evidence was satisfactorily explained by the investigation and therefore no interference was warranted in his conviction on the basis of extra-judicial confession.

It must be underscored that any Court before basing a conviction on extra-judicial confession alone must be very careful when it comes to the words used by the accused while interacting with the witnesses and must make ensure that fabrications, concoctions and exaggerations don’t creep in any manner as that can push an innocent accused to conviction which would certainly tantamount to a great travesty of justice. In Mulk Raj v State of UP, AIR 1959 SC 902, it was held by Supreme Court that though court will require the witness to give the actual words used by the accused, yet it is not an invariable rule that the court should not accept the evidence if actual words are not given. Macaulay in his ‘History of England’, Vol 1 on page 283 very rightly points out that, “Words may easily be misunderstood by an honest man. They may easily be misconstrued by a knave. What was spoken metaphorically may be apprehended literally. What was spoken ludicrously may be apprehended seriously. A participle, a tense, a mood, an emphasis may make the whole difference between guilt and innocence.” Therefore, it merits no reiteration that wordings make a huge difference and it is the bounden duty of all courts concerned to fully understand in which sense the words have been used before basing any conviction on the basis of extra-judicial confession alone! It also must be borne in mind that many times a witness acts in good faith but there is unintended tricks of memory due to which there is misinterpretation and because of which an innocent accused can wrongly be convicted on the basis of extra-judicial confession alone which at all cost must be prevented by all concerned courts as that would result in a grave miscarriage of justice! At the same time all courts must bear in mind what the Supreme Court held in Narayan Singh v State of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1985 SC 1678 that, “It is not open to any Court to start with a presumption that extra-judicial confession is a weak type of evidence. It would depend on the nature of the circumstances, the time when the confession was made and the credibility of the witness who speaks to such a confession.” A balance thus has to be struck before a conviction or acquittal is recorded in such cases!