New Delhi: In the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, the Supreme Court has commuted the death sentence to life for Santosh Singh, the man accused of murdering the 23-year-old law student.
"We are shattered and dismayed," said CL Mattoo, Priyadarshini's father, to NDTV. "We had expected better treatment from the courts... The whole civil society is in danger, you see, if they keep lowering the sentence of criminals." (Watch: 'Shattered,' says Priyadarshini's father)
Mattoo's lawyer, Ashok Bhan, said that he would file a review or curative petition seeking enhancement of the punishment after going through the verdict. "He was not an ordinary criminal and, therefore, it (case) was the rarest of rare category," he said.
Priyadarshini was strangled at her home in Vasant Kunj in Delhi in January 1996. Santosh Singh was her senior at college. (Case Timeline) The 14-year fight for justice became symbolic of India's frustration with a system that seemed to let off the hook - literally get away with murder - those with powerful connections. Along with the Jessica Lall and Nitish Katara cases, Priyadarshini's story formed a trio of trials that evoked middle class anger and solidarity. In each of the cases, a middle class family was pitted against offenders whose fathers were in influential offices.
In October 2006, the Delhi High Court found Santosh Singh guilty of rape and murder and sentenced him to death. Singh, who worked as a lawyer till he was imprisoned, appealed against that sentence. "For a murder so grotesque and brutal, the convict deserves nothing less than the death penalty," the High Court had said. Experts said its decision was based on a combination of forensic and circumstantial evidence. (Oct 30, 2006: Death penalty for Santosh Singh)
That verdict reversed an earlier decision by a lower court in Delhi which had acquitted Singh. At that time, the judge had stressed that a malnourished investigation by the Delhi Police meant that though he knew Singh" is the man who committed the crime," he was forced to acquit him. (Read: Who is Santosh Singh)
The Supreme Court said today, "To our mind, certain things are in favour of appellant (Singh). We are converting the punishment of death sentence into the life imprisonment." (Read: What the Judge said today)
In 1995, a year before she died, Priyadarshini had complained that Santosh Singh was stalking her. On January 23 in 1996, Singh was seen trying to enter the Vasant Kunj flat where Priyadarshini lived. She was found dead by her domestic help. She had been raped, strangled with an electric wire, and her face had been battered with a motorcycle helmet. Singh's helmet was found shattered - this later formed part of the evidence against him.
Critical DNA tests that linked Singh to the rape and murder were rejected by the trial court and then later accepted by the Delhi High Court. Both courts had agreed that the police were reluctant to follow up on Priyadarshini's complaints against Singh because his father was a senior police officer.
The High Court slammed the police, stating that the rule of law "is not meant for those who enforce the law nor for their near relatives".
The Supreme Court reflected that sentiment in its order today. It observed, "We notice the tendency of parents to be over indulgent to their progeny often leading to the most horrendous situations. These situations are exacerbated when an accused belongs to a category with unlimited power... evidenced by regular and alarming incidents such as the present one. To our mind, the balance sheet tilts marginally in favour of the appellant and the ends of justice would be met if the sentence awarded to him is commuted from death to life."