Supreme Court Guidelines

Culpable Homicide and Murder

Budhi Lal v. State of Uttarakhand, AIR 2009 SC 87: (2008) 14 SCC 647

The academic distinction between ‘murder’ and ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’ has always vexed the courts. The confusion is caused, if courts losing sight of the true scope and meaning of the terms used by the legislature in these sections, allow themselves to be drawn into minute abstractions.

The safest way of approach to the interpretation and application of these provisions seems to be to keep in focus the keywords used in the various clauses of sections 299 and 300. The following comparative table will be helpful in appreciating the points of distinction between the two offences.
Clause (b) of section 299 corresponds with clauses (2) and (3) of section 300. The distinguishing feature of the mens rea requisite under clause (2) is the knowledge possessed by the offender regarding the particular victim being in such a peculiar condition or state of health that the internal harm caused to
him is likely to be fatal, notwithstanding the fact that such harm would not in the ordinary way of nature be sufficient to cause death of a person in normal health or condition. It is noteworthy that the ‘intention to cause death’ is not an essential requirement of clause (2). Only the intention of causing the bodily injury coupled with the offender’s knowledge of the likelihood of such injury causing the death of the particular victim, is sufficient to bring the killing within the ambit of this clause. This aspect of clause (2) is borne out by Illustration (b) appended to section 300.
Clause (b) of section 299 does not postulate any such knowledge on the part of the offender. Instances of cases falling under clause (2) of section 300 can be where the assailant causes death by a fist blow intentionally given knowing that the victim is suffering from an enlarged liver, or enlarged spleen or diseased heart and such blow is likely to cause death of that particular person as a result of the rupture of the liver, or spleen or the failure of the heart, as the case may be. If the assailant had no such knowledge about the disease or special frailty of the victim, nor an intention to cause death or bodily injury sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death, the offence will not be murder, even if the injury which caused the death, was intentionally given. In clause (3) of section 300, instead of the words ‘likely to cause death’ occurring in the corresponding clause (b) of section 299, the words “sufficient in the ordinary course of nature” have been used. Obviously, the distinction lies between a bodily injury likely to cause death and a bodily injury sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. The distinction is fine but real and if overlooked, may result in miscarriage of justice. The difference between clause (b) of section 299 and clause (3) of section 300 is one of the degree of probability of death resulting from the intended bodily injury. To put it more broadly, it is the degree of probability of death which determines whether a culpable homicide is of the gravest, medium or the lowest degree. The word ‘likely’ in clause (b) of section 299 conveys the sense of probable as distinguished from a mere possibility. The words “bodily injury …sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death” means that death will be the “most probable” result of the injury, having regard to the ordinary course of nature.

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