Dhananjoy Chatterjee - An innocent person judicially killed by the state

The Republic of India celebrated fifty seven years of its political independence on 15th August, 2004. The newspapers of that day had carried the news of the country's freedom from coexistence with a widely despised soul.

It was reported that Dhananjoy Chatterjee, convicted rapist and murderer of a fourteen-year old schoolgirl, had been hanged to death. For a number of people, this was an occasion to reflect on the wisdom of the death penalty. For many others, it was a moment of renewed faith that the system can deliver justice.

As an ordinary reader of newspapers, I had followed the story of this hanging during the monsoon of 2004. My suspicion about the case was aroused by the reports of Dhananjoy's walking to the gallows with dignity and his wishing everyone well. I was particularly intrigued by his declaration that he was being hanged despite his complete innocence – simply because he was poor. I shared my thoughts with some friends. We decided to find out the truth. Over the next few years, we minutely examined the case records, including judgments of three courts, testimonies of witnesses, inquest, post mortem and forensic reports, the first information report and other documentary evidences. We spoke to the police officers, forensic experts, post mortem doctors, lawyers and witnesses involved in the case, visited the location of the crime and spoke to the neighbours, visited Dhananjoy's village home and spoke to the local people.

We spent many hours in the National Library, trying to make sense of the newspaper reports published in 1990 soon after the murder. What we found was sufficient to give anyone a queasy feeling in the stomach. The conclusion was that in the name of justice, the state had killed an innocent man. The real killer had got away with murder. If you count Dhananjoy, it was a case of double murder.

This conclusion was so much contrary to the conclusion of the courts that we had to be cautious. We got the logic of our findings reviewed by peers. We invited a number of forensic experts, including three former directors of the State Forensic Science Laboratory, to a seminar and asked them to dissect our analysis. There was complete consensus about our main findings. After that we decided to tell the world what we have come to know. A book titled Adalat-Media-Samaj ebong Dhananjoyer Fansi (Judiciary-Media-Society and Dhanajoy's hanging) has come out this month. The entire set of documents that forms the basis of our conclusions has been uploaded in the website, so that anyone can verify the correctness of our inferences.

The essential logic of Dhananjoy's conviction
The murder took place in a third floor apartment of a six storied apartment building in Bhawanipore, Central Kolkata. Hetal Parekh, the victim, had come home after appearing for her Class X board examination at around lunchtime, and remained there along with her mother for several hours thereafter.

The mother had gone out in the afternoon for half an hour. After her return, she could not get her daughter to open the entrance door of the flat. When people gathered and broke the door open, Hetal's dead body was discovered on the floor. During the brief period of the mother's absence, the only person that was seen entering or leaving the building was Dhananjoy Chatterjee, an off-duty security guard.

After the dead body was found, Dhananjoy was not seen in the vicinity. The on-duty security guard and his supervisor told the court that Dhananjoy had entered the victim's flat in order to make a telephone call, and had even spoken to them from the balcony of that particular flat.

Two months after the murder, when Dhananjoy had been captured from his village home, the police had recovered a wrist watch stolen from the crime scene and a shirt with a missing button that had been seized from the crime scene.

Post mortem examination had confirmed that the victim had been raped. Thus, there was much circumstantial evidence against Dhananjoy, and there was no one else who could have possibly committed the crimes within the narrow period of absence of the victim's mother. It is on the basis of this argument that the courts concluded that Dhananjoy must have committed the crime.

Our findings about what actually happened

Even though Dhananjoy had received the death penalty for the crime of murder, it was the rape that made the crime look particularly ghastly. After collating and studying the post mortem and forensic reports, we were surprised by the lack of evidence of rape.

In response to the police's query about whether the victim had been raped, the autopsy doctor only wrote that she had been subjected to sexual intercourse before her death, as evidenced by fresh tear in the hymen and matted pubic hair, sample of which later revealed the presence of semen. Yet there is no indication that the intercourse was a violent incident.

In fact, most of the injuries were in the face and the neck area, while there was no injury in the breasts or the genitals. Semen and blood were found in the victim's panty and underskirt, but no semen was found in her vaginal swab.

These findings indicate that there was a gentle and consensual intercourse followed by ejaculation outside the vagina, and then the partners had dressed up. Indeed, the victim's partner in sex and her assailant were likely to be different persons altogether. The autopsy doctor did not peruse the forensic findings for which he had himself sent away samples.

He opined in court that the victim had been raped, but admitted that this conclusion was based on the police's requisition for the post mortem examination, in which their suspicion of rape was mentioned.
The two 'eye-witnesses' who claimed to have seen Dhananjoy in the balcony of the victim's flat had definitely lied.

The spot in the ground floor, from where the on-duty guard claimed to have spoken to Dhananjoy, lies inside the building. We have verified, after visiting the location, that the third floor balcony is not even visible from that place.

Both the witnesses had been employees of the private security agency that had been under pressure to clear their name after the murder happened under their watch.

There were twenty two sets of injuries. No weapon was used. These facts point towards an unplanned murder. The time window of Dhananjoy's entry to the building and his exit, described by the eyewitnesses, was not sufficient for a situation for murder to develop, for him to inflict all those injuries and also to commit the alleged theft of the wrist watch.

The assault on the victim had been brutal indeed. She had been repeatedly scratched and showered with punches and blows before being strangled to death. Her nose and hyoid bone had been broken. Anyone inflicting these injuries would be drenched in sweat.

It is almost impossible for an outsider to get away with unsoiled clothes after committing this crime, without any abnormality in appearance detected by anyone. These issues would not arise if the culprit had been a resident of the flat.

A proper investigation of this case cannot exclude the immediate members of the victim's family. After all, they had alerted the police more than three hours after the murder had been discovered.
The police had simply assumed that the victim's mother was not present when the murder took place.

Yet, according to the prosecution witnesses, she had been the only person that was with the victim for most of the afternoon – leaving aside her brief period of absence. She had all the time in the world, as well as the requisite physique, to commit the crime and clean up.

The findings of the post mortem examination are more consistent with occurrence of the death before Mrs. Parekh's departure than after it. This matter has been analysed in detail in the book.

Presence of semen in the victim's pubic hair indicates that the sex had happened shortly before her death, as a larger time gap would have increased the chances of the semen being washed off. There is strong indication that Hetal had returned to her apartment at least an hour later than the time claimed by the prosecution.

Contrary to press reports, she was eighteen years of age at that time. If she willingly had physical intimacy with anyone, it was entirely her business. However, her family was a conservative one. How they would have reacted to any knowledge or hint of her activities is a matter of conjecture.

In between the claimed time of Hetal's return and her actual return, Dhananjoy had been at security duty in the apartment building where the Parekhs lived.

Thus, the man involved with her had to be someone else. Mrs. Parekh had acted in haste when she ordered servants to break open the entrance door of her flat. She did not try to contact her daughter through either intercom or telephone. As soon as the body was discovered, she lifted the body all by herself and started off for the hospital.

However, after reaching the ground floor by elevator, she remained seated inside the elevator with the body on her lap. Two doctors came and examined Hetal inside the elevator, pronounced her dead, and advised that the police should be alerted. Yet Mrs. Parekh stayed put inside the elevator until her son returned.

This apparently bizarre behaviour makes perfect sense in a situation where the cold dead body is sought to be protected from the touch of the general public, who might suspect that the murder took place several hours ago.

Mrs. Parekh had avoided deposing in court four times before she eventually testified.

Within a few months of the murder, the entire Parekh family had relocated swiftly and permanently to Mumbai. This meant that Hetal's father, then 62 years of age, had to wind up his established business in Kolkata.

The Parekhs had to sell off a sprawling three-bedroom flat in central Kolkata and start living in a much smaller flat in Mumbai. Hetal's brother, who was being groomed for the family business, had to take up a paid job in Mumbai. The brother was studying in Class XI when the relocation took place. The court case on Hetal's murder was yet to start.

The family must have had some reason to run away from Kolkata.
Ever since the murder, the family had consistently avoided attention of the media. They did so even around the time of Dhananjoy's execution. However, they did not shy away from participating in fabrication of evidence to implicate Dhananjoy.

Although these findings do not comprise a complete theory of how the murder took place, there is enough reason to suspect that it was the victim's mother, rather than Dhananjoy, who was involved in the murder.

The police investigation had relied too much on the account given by the victim's family. The prosecution said in court that the investigation started after the police obtained the preliminary facts of the case from the victim's family.

Going by this account, the police had not started the investigation when Mr. Prasun Mukherjee, the then Deputy Commissioner of Detective Department, Lalbazar, briefed the media about the 'facts' of the case, while sitting in the Parekh's flat. He said that Dhananjoy Chatterjee was absconding and the police were suspecting him of the crime.

Three days after the murder, there was a representation from the Gujarati Samaj of Calcutta to the Chief Minister, referring specifically to this case and expressing the sense of fear and insecurity among the Gujaratis living in the Bhawanipore area. Thus, there was pressure on the government to solve the case quickly.

Mrs. Parekh's statement to the police was regarded as the first information report (FIR) of the case. We have proof that at least some parts of this 'statement' could not have been hers. We have proof that the police officer, who had claimed in court that he recorded this statement, was actually doing a different type of duty in the ground floor at the very time when he claimed to have recorded it.

We also have proof that the police had tampered with the FIR before belatedly submitting it to the magistrate.
It is not clear how much interrogation Mrs. Parekh faced, if at all. She was allowed to leave for Mumbai within seven days of the murder.
The story eventually presented by the prosecution in court was essentially the story told by Mr. Prasun Mukherjee to the media on the basis of the family's version of events, embellished with dubious 'proofs'. In a nutshell, the police investigation consisted of fitting evidence to a pre-conceived theory.

Our findings about the judicial decisions

The courts relied on dubious inputs. We have proof that the so-called seizure of wrist watch and shirt with missing button was actually a staged event. The police had used people under their direct influence as witnesses to these seizures. They failed to produce one of the them in court, while the other witness has now gone public with his statement that he had acted as fake witness to a phoney seizure, under pressure from the police. I have already mentioned provable lies of two crucial eyewitnesses.

While false witnesses were relied upon, deposition of a demonstrably genuine witness was not properly used. The court declared him a hostile witness.

Dhananjoy's case was not fought properly in the lower court, as there was shortage of resources. There was a good lawyer, but he did not get expected fees. It is clear from court records that in some occasions he did not even remember the proceedings of the previous day.

The courts were persuaded of Dhananjoy's guilt partially by his act of absconding. The Supreme Court gave particular emphasis on his absconding immediately after the crime, when nobody named him as an accused. This was a mere oversight by the Court, as the records show that Mrs. Parekh had named Dhananjoy as an accused immediately after the crime.

The judges could not fathom an alternative theory partly because they never questioned the conclusion of rape, even though the evidence was problematic.

The judges have admitted that they were discharging a social responsibility while handing out the deaths sentence to Dhananjoy. It is clear from their observations that Dhananjoy had to pay the price for non-conviction and/or lenient sentencing in other cases involving heinous crimes. A division bench of the same court pointed out in 2013 that the award of death penalty to Dhananjoy was a case of wrong sentencing.

What to do with the findings

Dhananjoy's case exposes the laxities in the systemic and human components of our investigating and judicial processes. It is now clear that these laxities are so serious that they can even lead to the judicial killing of an innocent person.

This chilling fact should spur corrective action. There should be official reinvestigation of the case, identification of the real culprits and posthumous exoneration of Dhananjoy.

There are many instances of judicial exoneration of murder convicts in the Western world and even in China. There was such a case in India under British rule also. Dhananjoy deserves to be the first
one in independent India.

On March 5, 1990 Hetal Parekh was found lying dead in her third floor apartment in Bhawanipore, Kolkata. The police started loking for Dhananjoy, the only possible accused.

The police began investigation. For the next few weeks he didn't turn up for work. Dhananjoy was finally arrested on May 12 from Kuludihi.

The Alipore Sessions Court sentenced Dhananjoy to death on August 12. The Calcutta High Court then confirmed his sentence on August 7, 1992.

The Supreme Court held the case as a 'rarest of the rare' category and confirmed his death sentence on January 11. He filed a review petition before the SC, which was later dismissed.

He filed a mercy petition with the Governor of West Bengal on February 2. Two weeks later, he was informed that the Governor had refused to interfere in the matter.

On November 14, the single judge dismissed the writ petition. He then filed a writ petition in the HC again.

A divisions bench dismissed his petition on January 8. The SC in March, held that the Governor had rejected his mercy petition without proper consideration of the relevant facts.

By May, the Governor had rejected all petitions and Dhananjoy was scheduled to be executed. The Home Ministry too recommended his sentence.

By March, Dhananjoy had been incarcerated in Alipore Central Jail for over 14 years by this time. He spent his time before execution, listening to devotional songs.

Dhananjoy Chatterjee was executed at 4:30 am on August 14. The day was also his 39th birthday.

Debates before execution

Dhananjoy's execution was scheduled on 25 June 2004 but it was stayed after his family petitioned the Supreme Court of India, and filed a mercy plea with the then President Late Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. On 26 June 2004 a campaign to ensure Dhananjoy's hanging was initiated. Mrs. Meera Bhattacharjee, wife of Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, was at the forefront of this campaign. She made a passionate plea for Dhananjoy's hanging after providing details of the crime (e.g., that the rape was committed on a 14-year-old girl after she had been murdered) that are contradicted by evidence on record.] Several individuals and human rights groups came forward to oppose the execution. The mercy plea was finally rejected by the president on 4 August 2004. The family refused to claim his body; it was later cremated.

The date of Dhananjoy's execution was fixed at a high-level meeting at the office of Jail Minister Biswanath Chowdhury.

This was the first hanging in West Bengal since 21 August 1991, when murder convicts, Kartick Sil and Sukumar Burman, were hanged at Alipore Jail.

Demands <div style="display: inline !important;"><div style="display: inline !important;">for fresh investigation and exoneration
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