Exactly a year after Additional Sessions Judge Uttam Anand was killed after an autorickshaw ploughed straight into him on an empty road in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, a sessions court is likely to pronounce its verdict on the alleged murder on Wednesday (July 28).
The Jharkhand Police had charged two residents of Digwadih in Dhanbad, Lakhan Verma and Rahul Verma, under IPC Sections 302 (murder), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence), and 34 (common intention). Police suspected the incident to be a premeditated hit-and-run.
The incident was seen as an “attack on judicial independence”. Chief Justice of India N V Ramana had said that he had spoken to the Chief Justice of Jharkhand High Court on the matter.
The Jharkhand government had subsequently handed over the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which had re-registered the case and filed the chargesheet in October last year. The sessions court framed charges on February 2 this year, and after 35 hearings, completed the trial.
The prosecution said that the motive of the crime was to snatch the victim’s mobile phone, and that it was a premeditated act that warranted a conviction under IPC Section 302. The defence pleaded that it was not an “intentional hit” and that only the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder would be attracted.
Incident, family’s complaint
ASJ Anand, 50, was on a morning walk shortly after 5 am on July 28, 2021, when an autorickshaw knocked him down near Randheer Prasad Verma Chowk in Dhanbad. He was rushed to the Dhanbad Medical College and Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries around 9 am.
The report of the autopsy said death had occurred “due to injuries caused by hard and blunt substance” on the head. CCTV camera footage showed the autorickshaw veering towards him on an empty road, and the judge’s wife, Kriti Sinha, told police that “it appears the autorickshaw driver, in a pre-planned manner, hit him on his head which led to his death”.
HC’s monitoring of the case
The HC pulled up the CBI several times during the trial for “vague” filings and not being specific, and at one point told the investigating officer to be “thorough with details”. Meanwhile, the CBI recreated the crime scene, sought expert comments, and announced cash rewards from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh for worthwhile information on the case.
The CBI also got the brain profiling of both accused done on two occasions, which had irked the HC. After the first brain profiling that was carried out in September 2021, the result of the test on one of the accused indicated that he had been given an assignment to hit the judge. However, the second test carried out on the same accused in January this year indicated that he was not even present when the incident took place.
The HC pulled up the Jharkhand government for running a forensic science lab in Ranchi that was in a “primitive stage”. Samples of the accused were returned because there was no blood- and urine-testing facility available, and the samples were subsequently sent to CFSL, Delhi.
A few days later, during the hearing, the HC read through the progress report presented by the CBI which contained a CFSL report that indicated that the accused were “not under intoxication”. The defence has maintained that one of the accused, Lakhan Verma, who was driving the auto, was intoxicated when the vehicle hit the judge.
The CBI said the incident seemed to be “planned and intentional”, and that it “does not appear to be an accident”. It said the autorickshaw had closely followed Uttam Anand, which indicated that the driver and the person with him were looking for a chance to execute the plan.
“After the hit, the driver did not slow down the speed nor did he stop the autorickshaw to see the physical condition of the victim, which is otherwise a normal human reflex action of the driver after hitting the person. Therefore, it appears the autorickshaw driver had targeted Uttam Anand,” the CBI said.
It claimed that one of the two accused, “Rahul Kumar Verma is a professional thief who keeps looking for vulnerable targets”, and that he and his alleged accomplice Lakhan Verma had been “looking for a chance to execute the plan”. However, it was silent on “the plan”. Nor did it spell out any motive for the crime.
Quoting medical experts, the CBI said that the “deliberate” and “intentional” “ramming” caused “severe bodily injuries”, which were “sufficient” in the “ordinary course of nature” to cause the death of the ASJ. Both the accused were subjected to forensic psychological assessment, forensic statement analysis, polygraph test, and layered voice analysis by experts of CFSL Delhi after obtaining permission from the court.
Pleas of the defence
Lakhan Verma, who was driving, said he and co-accused Rahul Verma had stolen an auto in the wee hours of July 28, 2021. They had taken off the registration plate and were headed to Jharia, when they saw a police patrol vehicle and turned towards Dhanbad railway station instead. When they started for Jharia, they again encountered a police vehicle and took a detour to some place where they “drank intoxicating substance”.
Rahul said that they drove to Randheer Verma Chowk, when suddenly a stone came beneath a tyre, and the auto swerved towards the judge and hit him. He also said that he was intoxicated during the incident. However, he did not know then that the man was a judge and had not conspired or planned to hit him.
Rahul Verma too denied the incident was pre-planned. He claimed that he had got into a fight with Lakhan after they stole the auto, and that was why the latter had tried to implicate him even though he was not present in the vehicle. “Lakhan demanded Rs 50,000 to not give my name (in the case) and…he told me that if he can murder a judge, he can also murder me and my father,” Rahul said.
This version was contradicted by both Lakhan and the prosecution.
While the prosecution maintained that the incident was pre-planned and the murder was committed to snatch the judge’s mobile phone, defence lawyer Kumar Bimlendu said that the prosecution’s case has been murder centric, but the vital part, i.e., intention, has been “seriously missing”.