Death Penalty: Supreme Court of India's recent approach

How the varying approaches by different benches of the top court will be reconciled when it comes to capital punishment will be keenly watched in the coming months with Justice UU Lalit set to take over as the CJI.
Death Penalty
Death Penalty

The Supreme Court on Friday said that it if a matter calls for imposition of death penalty, courts will not avoid it and it has never been the effort of courts to make death penalty redundant.

It opined that it would reflect compromised objectivity if judges aimed to nullify statutory provisions carrying the death sentence as an alternative punishment, even after it has been held as constitutional.

"Over the time, even the proposition of larger/longer term of actual imprisonment with no remission or curtailed remission has also evolved but, it has never been the effort of the courts to somehow make this punishment (sentence of death) redundant and non-existent for all practical purposes. The quest for justice in such cases, with death sentence being awarded and maintained only in extreme cases, does not mean that the matter would be approached and examined in the manner that death sentence has be avoided, even if the matter indeed calls for such a punishment," the Court said.

The observations were made by a three-judge Bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari and CT Ravikumar in the judgment of Manoj Pratap Singh v State of Rajasthan while confirming the death sentence awarded to a man convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing a seven-and-a-half-year-old mentally and physically disabled girl.

Interestingly, these observations come at a time when the apex court has through a string of orders been attempting to streamline the entire death penalty jurisprudence in the country, particularly in relation to procedural aspects.

Justices Dinesh Maheshwari, AM Khanwilkar and CT Ravikumar (from Left to Right)
Justices Dinesh Maheshwari, AM Khanwilkar and CT Ravikumar (from Left to Right)

These observations by the apex court compel one to examine the approach taken by the judicial process while awarding death sentence.

The top court, over the last several decades, has developed a sound jurisprudence on death penalty which encompasses the rarest of rare doctrine and other tests used to determine the applicability of capital punishment to circumstances of an individual case.

The Supreme Court, in recent times, has placed great importance on the crime and criminal tests that examine the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

The judgment in Bachan Singh v State of Punjab where the top court lay down various principles for awarding sentence, has found centre-stage in this discourse. The case lays down three principles, that of individualised sentencing, the threshold of rarest of rare, and principled sentencing.

Principled sentencing essentially compels a careful examination of mitigating and aggravating circumstances, followed by a comparison of these circumstances to a pool of comparable cases. This principle seeks to point out excessiveness, and help repel arbitrariness.

The Supreme Court's recent approach

While commuting the death sentences of three murder convicts to life imprisonment, it was noted last month, that it was the court's responsibility to examine the mitigating circumstances of such cases liberally and expansively at the trial stage, even in brutal crimes.

The apex court, in this regard, also said that the responsibility of producing material to reflect that the accused was beyond rehabilitation, to unquestionably foreclose the option of life imprisonment fell squarely on the State.

It has been emphasised that this duty was of heightened importance in the Indian context since a majority of the accused had a poor or rudimentary level of legal representation.

In a judgment rendered in January, the Court commuted the death sentence of a convict belonging to a Scheduled Tribe community, to life imprisonment, in a case of rape and murder of a minor girl.

A three judge-bench noted that while the trial court and the High Court took the gravity of the crime into account, they failed to consider the mitigating circumstances including the convict's socio-economic background and probability of reformation and rehabilitation.

It was taken into account that the convict was from a marginalised community, was about 25 years of age when the offence was committed, used to eke out his livelihood by doing manual labour and had no criminal antecedents. There was also no adverse report against him about his conduct in jail, the court had recorded while making the decision.

Similarly, in November last year, the Supreme Court commuted the death penalty of a man held guilty of rape and murder of a 5-year-old girl reasoning that the victim's young age could not be the sole ground to impose death penalty.

The Bench took note of the mitigating factors that included young age of the accused, lack of criminal antecedents, the lack of pre-planning for the offence and his socio-economic background.

"We believe that there is hope for reformation, rehabilitation, and thus the option of imprisonment for life is certainly not foreclosed and therefore acceptable", the court had said.

Justice UU lalit, Justice Ravindra bhat and Justice PS Narasimha
Justice UU lalit, Justice Ravindra bhat and Justice PS Narasimha

Pertinently, in April this year, a bench Justices UU Lalit, S Ravindra Bhat and PS Narasimha initiated a suo motu case to examine and institutionalise the process involved in collection of data and information to decide award of sentence in death penalty cases.

The top court aimed to study how courts dealing with death sentence could procure a comprehensive analysis about the accused and the crime, particularly the mitigating circumstances so as to decide whether death sentence needed to be imposed or not.

The intention was to lay down guidelines to be followed by courts across India while considering cases that involved awarding the death penalty.

The verdict in this case was reserved, and will now be delivered after the top court's summer vacation.

How the varying approaches of different benches of the top court will be reconciled when it comes to capital punishment will be keenly watched in the coming months with Justice UU Lalit, the presiding judge in many such matters, set to take over as the Chief Justice of India later this year.

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