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Understanding The Residual Doubt Theory

Residual Doubt Theory was first adopted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case Ashok Debbarma @ Achak Debbarma .v. State of Tripura. In line with this theory, a higher standard of proof used at the stage of conviction (Beyond Reasonable Doubt) is employed to access whether the case falls under the ‘rarest of rare’ category and hence whether the convict deserves the death penalty or not.

The judgment drew a distinction between a ‘residual doubt’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ during conviction and sentencing.‘Beyond reasonable doubt’ is the standard of proof for the conviction of the accused. As per Krishnan and another v. State of Kerala , reasonable doubt is not an imaginary, trivial or a mere possible doubt, but a fair doubt based upon reason and common sense. Although the residual doubt is not relevant for conviction, it has relevance at the stage of the question of a sentence while awarding the death penalty to decide whether the case falls under the ‘rarest of rare’ category or not.

In the present case, the Hon’ble Supreme Court have interpreted the meaning of Residual doubt as, “ not a fact about the defendant or the circumstances of the crime, but a lingering uncertainty about facts, a state of mind that exists somewhere between ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ and ‘absolute certainty’.” ‘Residual doubts’ are the doubts that may have lingered in the minds of jurors who were convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but who were not absolutely certain of his guilt. There might have been some mitigating factors like lack of proper legal assistance, etc.

Hence if there is a residual doubt in the mind of jurors, the accused shall not be awarded the death penalty.

The latest case which applied Residual Doubt Theory

Ravishanka @ Baba Vishwakarma .v. State of M.P. (2019)

In this case ‘Residual Doubt Theory’ was applied and the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment. Some observations made by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in this judgment are listed below:

  1. In the present case, the Test Identification Parade was not conducted because the witnesses personally knew the accused by face. The main objective of the Test Identification Parade is to enable the witnesses to identify the persons involved within the commission of an offense if the offenders are not personally known to the witnesses. So, failure to conduct the Test Identification Parade does not make the evidence of identification at the trial inadmissible.

  2. The complaint received after the starting of an investigation by the police cannot be treated as a First Information Report. It can, at best, only be treated as a statement to the police under section 161 of The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

  3. The trial court in this present case conducted a cross-examination of the Prosecution Witness who was not examined-in-chief. The Hon’ble Supreme Court made it clear that it is an error on the part of the trial court because Section 138 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 clearly states that witnesses shall be first examined-in-chief, then cross-examined (if the adverse party so desires). Cross-examination before examination-in-chief cannot be permitted.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court by applying the ‘Residual Doubt Theory’ held that this is not the case of the ‘rarest of rare’ category. Hence the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of the accused to imprisonment for life.


Sandeep Kumar is currently pursuing Law at Army Institute of Law, Mohali.

You can contact them on https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandeep-kumar-9833246b

Edited by: Swathi Ashok Nair

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