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Accomplice in Evidence Act

Accomplice  in Evidence Act


Defining Accomplice in Evidence Act

An accomplice, as per the Evidence Act, isn't explicitly defined, thus it's presumed to carry its ordinary meaning. Typically, an accomplice is someone involved in the commission of a crime, a partner in wrongdoing, or an associate in guilt.

Such an individual actively participates in the unlawful act and is aware of the criminal intent behind it. However, there are exceptions, such as a witness coerced into paying a bribe under threat by a public servant.

In such cases, the coerced individual isn't considered an accomplice since they aren't willingly partaking in the criminal activity.

Traditionally, it's been a practice, almost akin to a legal principle, that while evidence provided by an accomplice is permissible, it usually necessitates corroboration to be relied upon.

Hence, a contractor coerced into offering a bribe wouldn't be classified as an accomplice, given that the bribe was extracted from them against their will.

Furthermore, an accomplice who turns approver essentially becomes a witness for the prosecution. However, for an approver's testimony to hold weight, it must pass a stringent dual assessment: firstly, it must be deemed trustworthy, and secondly, it should be supported by sufficient corroboration.

Evidentiary Value of Accomplice

The evidentiary value of an accomplice hinges on the principle of corroboration, which demands that their testimony withstand scrutiny, particularly on key points. There are inherent risks in solely relying on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice:

  1. Tainted Source: An accomplice is complicit in the crime, casting doubt on the reliability of their testimony compared to that of a law-abiding citizen.

  2. Potential Untruthfulness: Having betrayed their associates, an accomplice may have motives to deceive the court, potentially fabricating a narrative that falsely incriminates the innocent.

  3. Approver Bias: If granted pardon as an approver, the accomplice may exhibit bias in favour of the state, given the leniency shown to them.

These concerns highlight the necessity for corroboration. In fact, an approver's testimony must pass a rigorous reliability test before even considering the question of corroborative evidence in criminal proceedings.

The nature and extent of corroboration required for accomplice evidence vary case by case, making it impossible to establish rigid guidelines. However, the principles outlined in R. v Baskerville (1916 2 KB 658) offer clear guidance:

  • Corroboration need not cover every detail of the accomplice's account; it suffices to corroborate a material aspect of the case.

  • Independent evidence must confirm the identity of the accused in relation to the crime, establishing not only the occurrence of the offence but also the accused's involvement.

  • Corroboration must come from sources other than the accomplice's testimony; one accomplice cannot corroborate another.

  • Corroboration may be circumstantial rather than direct, provided it supports the inference of the accused's guilt.

In Rabinder Kumar Dey v. State of Orissa, AIR 1977 SC 170, the Supreme Court ruled that while an accomplice's testimony may not be entirely dismissed, the court can place reliance only on those parts of their testimony that are deemed trustworthy and credible.

Relationship  between Sec. 133 and Sec. 114

Section 133 stands as the sole definitive rule of law regarding the evidence provided by an accomplice. However, illustration (b) to section 114 serves as a guiding principle that the court should consider.

It's crucial to note that this isn't an inflexible presumption incapable of rebuttal; rather, it's a presumption that can be challenged.

The combined effect of section 133 and illustration (b) to section 114 is such that while convicting an accused solely based on an accomplice's testimony may not be deemed illegal, courts typically require corroboration in material particulars as a matter of practice.

In the judgement of Dagdu v State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court emphasised that there's no contradiction between section 133 and illustration (b) to section 114. The illustration merely suggests that the court "may" presume a certain state of affairs, not establishing an absolute presumption.

When read together, it becomes apparent that although an accomplice's testimony can legally support a conviction even without corroboration, courts often presume that such testimony lacks reliability unless corroborated in significant aspects, particularly with independent evidence implicating the accused in the crime.

The prevalent practice in Indian courts, influenced by section 133 and illustration (b) to section 114, dictates that while it's not illegal to rely on an accomplice's uncorroborated testimony, it's generally deemed unsafe to do so without corroboration, given the inherent risks.

An accomplice may be inclined to lie to absolve themselves of guilt, being morally compromised as a participant in the crime.

Additionally, an approver, by their own admission, is a criminal providing evidence under the promise of pardon, potentially biassed in favour of the prosecution to secure their freedom.

In the case of Somasundaram v. State, (2020) 7 SCC 722, the court held that the combined effect of Section 133 alongside Illustration (b) to Section 114.

This combination has led to the evolution of a prudent rule within the courts, stating that it's unsafe to convict an accused solely based on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.

As a general practice, accomplices must be corroborated in material particulars to be considered credible witnesses. It's noteworthy that evidence to corroborate an accomplice doesn't necessarily have to be direct; circumstantial evidence is also admissible for this purpose.

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