The only acquittal in the Kathua rape-and-murder case came as the trial court set aside the statement of three prosecution witnesses who had claimed that Vishal Jangotra, the son of main culprit Sanji Ram, was in the area at the time of the crime.
District and sessions judge Tejwinder Singh relied on the statement of the landlady of Vishal that he was in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh where he was studying in a college.
According to the 432-page judgement delivered on June 10, the prosecution counsel relied on the three eyewitnesses who had claimed to have seen Vishal in Kathua on January 13 and 14 last year and forensic experts' opinion that writing samples of Vishal did not tally.
"The prosecution claims that as per the said report (hand writting), the questioned signatures do not tally with the standard items in general writing habits such as movement, skill and speed. The differences observed in writing are fundamental in nature," according to the verdict.
Vishal had presented his signature in the attendance sheet of his college to show that he was in Meerut, and not in Jammu and Kashmir as claimed by the prosecution.
The prosecution also submitted evidence of mobile operators to prove the fact that Vishal was very much present in Kathua on days when the crime against the eight-year-old nomadic girl were committed in Kathua.
While analysing the eyewitnesses of the prosecution, the court said it is of the opinion that these witnesses "are under some mistake relating to identity".
Commenting on an eyewitness, who had seen a TV report about absence of Vishal from Kathua and came running to crime branch officials where he claimed to have seen Vishal along with Parvesh, an accused sentenced to life.
The eyewitness, who belongs to nomadic tribe, identified Vishal and Parvesh in the court but the judge did not rely on his statement saying that he "never moved any complaint before any authority against the news channel" or its staff.
"...As such oral evidence of these witnesses cannot be given preference over the documentary evidence on record having been led by defence of Vishal Jangotra." Vishal was the only one among the seven accused to be acquitted by the court.
Three, including his father Sanji Ram who was the key conspirator, were given life sentences. Others were Parvesh Kumar and Deepak Khajuria. Three policemen have been sentenced to five years' jail for destruction of evidence.
Parvesh Kumar, who has been convicted, had said in his confessional statement that Vishal was present with him during the crime. The crime branch has been maintaining that Vishal had come to his village on January 13 and left again on January 14.
The court took into account a statement from Suman Sharma, the landlady of Vishal, who had said that he was present all along in Meerut where he is studying and also testified that he had attended his granddaughter's birthday celebration on January 16 last year.
Pointing out some elementary mistakes in the investigation, the court observed that Sub-inspector Urfan Wani categorically deposed that before arresting Vishal from Uttar Pradesh's Meeranpur, they had not enquired from his college or his examination centre whether he had regularly appeared for his examination that started from January 9, 2018.
Wani in his deposition also stated that he had recorded the statement of Vishal's landlady, Suman Sharma, in Urdu "... and he does not know whether Suman Sharma knew Urdu language or not," it observed.
In Jammu and Kashmir, Urdu is an official language used by the police to record statements of the accused as well as witnesses. The court also raised the issue of the prosecution failing to question Inspector Kewal Kishore who had done most of the investigation regarding Vishal's alleged role in the crime.
"This court is of the opinion that all this goes to show there is a big lacuna in the prosecution case against Vishal Jangotra in this regard as prosecution failed to verify genuinely the plea of alibi raised by accused Vishal Jangotra at the first instance during the investigation of the case," it said in the detailed order.
The special court said the prosecution has failed to discharge its burden of leading convincing evidence to the effect that the evidence led by Vishal on his 'plea of alibi' is wrong or forged and fabricated.
A 15-page charge sheet filed in April last year said the eight-year-old girl was kidnapped on January 10 that year and was raped in captivity in a small village temple, exclusively manned by Ram, after keeping her sedated for four days. She was later bludgeoned to death, it said.
The day-to-day trial commenced in the first week of June last year at the district and sessions court in Pathankot in the neighbouring state of Punjab, about 100 km from Jammu and 30 km from Kathua, after the Supreme Court ordered on May 7, 2018 that the case be shifted out of J and K.
The apex court order came after lawyers in Kathua prevented Crime Branch officials from filing a charge sheet in the sensational case.