The State needs to play a definite role in coming out with witness-protection programme, at least in sensitive cases involving those having political patronage, muscle and money power so that trial does not get "tainted and derailed", the Supreme Court has said.
Observing that threat and intimidation were major causes for witnesses turning hostile, it said when the witnesses are not able to depose correctly before the court, it results in low conviction rate and many times even hardened criminals escape the conviction.
"It shakes public confidence in the criminal justice delivery system," a bench of justices A K Sikri and Amitava Roy said.
"It is for this reason there has been a lot of discussion on witness protection and from various quarters demand is made for the state to play a definite role in coming out with witness-protection programme, at least in sensitive cases involving those in power, who have political patronage and could wield muscle and money power, to avert trial getting tainted and derailed and truth becoming a casualty," it said.
The bench noted in its verdict that it has become a common phenomenon and almost a regular feature that in criminal cases witnesses turn hostile.
The court's observation came while dismissing an appeal filed by four persons, who were convicted by the Punjab and Haryana High Court for the offences of murder and subjecting a married woman to cruelty.
They were initially acquitted by a trial court but the high court had overturned the judgement and convicted them while relying on the dying declaration of the woman, who was set ablaze by the accused persons in 1999.
The husband and in-laws of the deceased woman had moved the apex court challenging the high court's judgement, saying there was no reason to rely on the dying declaration as there were certain infirmities in it.
Police had registered the case against them based on the statement given by the woman, who was admitted to a hospital with 100 per cent burn injuries and had died during treatment.
The police had alleged that the husband and in-laws of the victim were subjecting her to cruelty for dowry and when she was sleeping at her home, the accused poured kerosene on her and set her ablaze.
Regarding dying declaration, the apex court noted that it is an "independent piece of evidence" and can be acted upon without corroboration if it is found to be true and reliable.
"Present case appears to have been stung by 'culture of compromise'. Fortunately, statement of PW-4 (brother of the deceased) in attempting to shield the accused (husband of the deceased) has been proved to be false in view of the records of PGIMS, Rohtak and, therefore, we held that the high court was right in discarding his testimony," the bench said.