The undertrial inmate of Ghaghidih Central Jail in a prison van near MGM Medical College and Hospital in Sakchi on Friday. Picture by Animesh Sengupta
An inmate of Ghaghidih Central Jail, who is under trial for rape, was brought to Jamshedpur on Friday for an age determination test following claims that he is below the legal incarceration age of 18.
The development — a grim reminder of the brutal December 2012 Delhi gang rape wherein one of the six convicts was proven to be a juvenile and spared the death row — is likely to raise the pertinent question of whether young delinquents involved in grave crimes should be shown leniency.
According to superintendent of the central jail Satyendra Chowdhury, the young tribal man — a resident of Jahir Bhatta in the neighbouring town of Seraikela — is accused of raping an 18-year-old in the same area on June 13, 2013. He was arrested a day later and forwarded to Seraikela Divisional Jail. He was shifted to the central prison last October because the lower jail was overcrowded. Trial in the case began three months ago at a sessions court in Seraikela.
“He has claimed to be a minor — 16 at the time of the incident — which has necessitated the age determination test. If he is proven right, he will have to be shifted to a reform facility,” Chowdhury said, adding that the examination process was already underway at MGM Medical College and Hospital in Sakchi.
A hospital source said a three-member medical board had been formed for the purpose. “An orthopaedic, a radiologist and a doctor from the forensic and toxicology department will assess the undertrial prisoner’s age,” he added.
Dr G.S. Badaik of MGM’s orthopaedic department, who is a member of the board, said an X-ray of the bone structure of the accused was done on Friday. “On the basis of the report, we will fix another date for final determination of his likely age,” he said.
In cases where documents are absent or inconclusive, a bone test can be done to determine a person’s age. Medical experts, however, say that such an examination can only determine age within a two-year range. Bone age is the degree of maturation of a person’s bones. As one grows through childhood, puberty and finishes growth as a young adult, the bones change in size and shape. These can be seen through an X-ray.
Medical journals say the most commonly used method is based on a single X-ray of the left hand — fingers and wrist. X-rays of limb bones (pelvic, shoulder, elbow, knee, ankle, thigh, wrist) are used to check how much of the cartilaginous ends of bone have converted into bone, says a newspaper report. Infants have 350 bones and they subsequently fuse into 206 bones by the age of 25. The different stages of fusing of bones can give indications of their actual age.
Dental records are also commonly used to determine age, since the wearing down of teeth correlates with how long a person has been living and eating. Another indicator is the presence of wisdom teeth.
“Analysis of pubic bones that lie just under the navel and some vertebral bones can also determine a person’s age. Both the pubic bone and some vertebrae are rougher during childhood and adolescence, but start to become smooth as people age. However, all these tests cannot determine the age of a person accurately, often giving results in a broad two-year range,” said a doctor.
Speaking to reporters on his way to hospital, the accused claimed he was 17. “And, I was just 16 when I was arrested on rape charge. I had applied in the chief judicial magistrate’s court in Seraikela for age determination immediately after my arrest,” he said.
Asked about the grave criminal charges against him, he added: “It is upto the court to decide whether I committed the crime, but I am still a minor. Despite pleading with police that I was not 18, I was arrested and forwarded to Seraikela jail, where I had to live with veteran criminals. It is the same at the Ghaghidih prison too.”
Should minors convicted of rape be spared harsh penalty?