This article has been written by Oishika Banerji of Amity Law School, Kolkata. This article discusses a list of landmark judgments surrounding death penalty with respect to India.
This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.
Table of Contents
In India, capital punishment is a legal penalty for certain penal offences under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and associated laws, carried out by means of hanging by neck as provided under Section 354 (5) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. In India, there are presently 403 prisoners on death row, whose executions are left to be carried out. Section 354 (3) of the 1973 Code specifies that the death sentence is rarely used and is reserved for exceptional circumstances only. This provision also puts restrictions on the exercise of courts discretion in this context. A court must weigh the offender’s personality against the circumstances, events, and reactions in order to determine the proper punishment to be imposed. In doing so, it was determined by the Supreme Court of India in the landmark case of Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980), that the death penalty does not violate Article 21 of the Indian Constitution if it is used only in the most extreme of circumstances. This article details out the landmark judgments that have been delivered by the Indian courts concerning death penalty from time immemorial.
Landmark cases on death penalty in India
The Supreme Court of India while deciding on the case of Ramnaresh and Ors v. State Of Chhattisgarh (2012), laid down five principles that are to be followed as guidelines by courts across India for determining whether death sentence is to be awarded or not:
- The Court must use the standard to decide if this was the ‘rarest of rare’ cases in which a death sentence should be imposed.
- The Court believes that any further sentence, such as life imprisonment, would be insufficient and would not serve the interests of justice.
- The death penalty is an exception rather than the norm.
- Given the nature and circumstances of the crime, as well as other relevant considerations, the option of imposing a life sentence cannot be used with caution.
- The technique (planned or otherwise) and manner (amount of violence and inhumanity, etc.) in which the crime was perpetrated, as well as the circumstances surrounding its occurrence, need to be taken into account.
Keeping these principles in mind, we must proceed with the landmark decisons by the Indian courts with respect to death penalty, under different headings, as provided hereunder.
Constitutionality of death penalty
Numerous legal experts have argued that the retention of the death sentence in Indian criminal legislation violates one’s Right to Life as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. However, it is certain that nothing in the Indian Constitution specifically declares capital punishment to be illegal.
Jagmohan Singh v. the State of Uttar Pradesh (1973)
The Appellant was condemned to death under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The Supreme Court granted limited leave to appeal on the issue of punishment. Arguments were made that the death sentence was unconstitutional because judges had too much authority as no standards or norms were available, and that violated Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian Constitution of 1950.
Observations made by the Supreme Court of India
A bench of Justices Sikri, S.M., Ray, A.N., Dua, I.D., Palekar, D.G., Beg and M. Hameedullah made the following observations in light of the case of Jagmohan Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1973):
- Articles 72(1)(c) and 134 of the Indian Constitution, as well as entries 1 and 2 in List III of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, reveal that the framers of the Constitution recognized the death penalty as a legal punishment and included provisions for appeal, reprieve, and other measures. However, more significant than these provisions in the Constitution is Article 21, which states that no one shall be deprived of his/her life except in accordance with legal procedures. The connotation is unmistakable. Deprivation of life is constitutionally permitted if done in accordance with legal procedures. Given these hints of constitutional postulates, it will be difficult to argue that the death penalty is seen as irrational or not in the public interest per se.
- In the framework of our criminal system, which punishes murder, one cannot overlook the reality that life imprisonment equates to a dozen years in jail in most situations, and it may be seriously questioned if that is a sufficient substitute for the death penalty. Parliament has refused to accept proposals to abolish it. In this situation, it is impossible to argue whether capital punishment is irrational or not, in the public interest.
- Although a crime may appear to be similar on the surface, the facts and circumstances surrounding it are vastly different, and since a court’s decision on a penalty is based on a thorough examination of all the facts and circumstances, there is no basis for a challenge under Article 14.
- Courts have the power to impose the death penalty after weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, and this decision cannot be described as unguided. Furthermore, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 lays out certain procedures for when a death sentence can be imposed, and the imposition of a death sentence in accordance with the law cannot be considered unconstitutional.
Vikram Singh and ors. v. the State of Punjab (2015)
This was an appeal from the High Court of Punjab and Haryana’s denial of the appellant’s writ petition challenging the legality of Section 364 A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The High Court presented the following viewpoints:
- There are moralists who believe that because God gave life, he alone has the authority to take it away and that no human being may usurp this privilege. Others argue that the death penalty cannot be used as a retributive or deterrent measure since statistics demonstrate that the threat of death has never served as a deterrence to major crime. Taking these two perspectives in view, the Court concluded that as the commonly accepted idea in India is that the death penalty as a deterrent is in the law books, it must be used if the circumstances merit it.
- On the basis of the foregoing reasoning provided above, the High Court decided that after it had evaluated the nature of the offence and its seriousness, the Court was affirmed by the fact that the appellants merited the maximum sentence specified for the charges brought against them.
Subsequently, a writ petition was filed before the Supreme Court of India, which affirmed the appellant’s conviction and death sentence issued under Sections 302, 364 A, 120 B, and 201 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Observation of the Apex Court
A bench of Justices T.S. Thakur, R.K. Agrawal, and Adarsh Kumar Goel, made the following observations in light of the case of Vikram Singh and ors. v. the State of Punjab (2015).
- Section 364A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 was enacted in response to an increase in the number of kidnappings and abductions for ransom. Terrorism began to rear its head, posing a threat not only to residents’ security and safety but also to the country’s sovereignty and integrity, necessitating immediate action to combat what has the ability to destabilize any government. The gradual escalation of the threats posed by kidnapping and abductions for ransom, not only by ordinary criminals for monetary gain or as an organized activity for economic gain, but also by terrorist organizations, necessitated the inclusion of Section 364A and harsh punishment for those who engaged in such activities.
- Given the context in which the aforementioned law was enacted, as well as Parliament’s concern for citizens’ safety and security, as well as the country’s unity, sovereignty, and integrity, the punishment prescribed for those who violate Section 364A cannot be deemed so outrageously disproportionate to the nature of the offence as to render it unconstitutional. The judicial discretion granted to the courts to pick one of the two penalties provided for individuals who violate Section 364A will very certainly be utilised along judicially recognized lines, with death sentences only being awarded in the rarest of situations. But just because the sentence of death is a possible punishment that may be awarded in appropriate cases cannot make it per se inhuman or barbaric.
- The appellants, in this case, were found guilty not only of violating Section 364A of the IPC but also of murder under Section 302 of the IPC. Even by the criteria of the rarest of rare situations developed and applied by the Apex Court, the death sentence handed to the appellants, was found just, fair, and reasonable. The Court went on to state that the present case was not one in which the victim averted his fate and lived to tell the tale of his ordeal. Instead, was a case in which he was sentenced to death, which appears to have influenced the judges’ decision to impose the death penalty on the appellants.
- A death sentence in a murder case may be rare, but if the courts have determined that it is the only penalty that can be given, based on the facts and evidence, it is difficult to review that matter in collateral procedures like the present case. Hence awarding of the death penalty was held to be constitutionally valid.
Chhannulal Verma v. the State of Chattisgarh (2019)
The Sessions Court found the appellant guilty of murder under Section 302, attempted murder under Section 307, threatening to kill under Section 506 (2), and house trespass under Section 450 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, thereby sentencing him to life imprisonment, fines, and also awarded death sentence. The way the appellant also picked and chose the people to cause grave injuries indicated that the act was pre-meditated. Because the appellant was brutal throughout the process, the Court classified the case as one of the rarest of the rare, and the appellant was therefore sentenced to the death penalty. The High Court while confirming the conviction and death sentence relied upon the aggravating and mitigating circumstances surrounding the incident. The learned senior counsel of the appellant had pointed out that the conviction and sentencing hearings were held on the same day, in violation of the guidelines provided in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) and that the appellant should have been given ample time to present mitigating evidence before being heard on the question of sentence.
Observations of the Supreme Court of India
Justice Kurian of the Supreme Court of India while deciding the present case of Chhannulal Verma v. the State of Chattisgarh (2019), had upheld the appellant’s conviction but commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, based on the following reasons:
- A proper psychological/psychiatric evaluation was not carried on the appellant, but the latter’s behaviour in jail was excellent.
- The High Court neglected the procedural inequity of not having a separate hearing for sentence at the trial stage. It is an essential requirement that the conviction and sentence hearings be separated. The Trial Court erred by scheduling the sentencing hearing on the same day as the hearing of the appeal, denying the appellant the opportunity to present material pertinent to punishment and mitigation.
The views of the Apex Court have been listed hereunder:
- Resistance to taking a life through the instrumentality of law is predicated on genuine and persistent respect for the dignity of human life. This should only be done in the most extreme of circumstances when there is no other viable option. In the sphere of this negative precept, the “rarest of rare situations” is an extremely limited aperture. Another requirement that qualifies this opening is “where the alternative choice is certainly foreclosed.”
- The restorative and rehabilitative parts of justice are lost in the concentration on the death sentence as the final measure of justice for victims. The use of the death penalty diverts focus away from other issues plaguing the criminal justice system, such as inadequate investigation, crime prevention, and victim rights. To rehabilitate victims of crime, the state must implement efficient victim compensation programs. Simultaneously, it is critical that courts employ the authority afforded to them by the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, to provide proper compensation to victims in relevant circumstances.
- Given the Law Commission of India’s 262nd Report, which stated that the constitutional regulation of capital punishment attempted in Bachan Singh case (1980) failed to prevent death sentences from being “arbitrarily and freakishly imposed”, Justice Joseph stated that it was time to reconsider the death penalty as a punishment, although, majority opinion on this point stated that there was no need to re-examine the constitutionality of the death penalty in light of the decision in Bachan Singh (1980).
Death penalty as a last resort
In India, capital punishment, sometimes known as the death sentence, is still a contentious issue. Despite global efforts to abolish the practice, India continues to carry it only in “rarest of rare” circumstances. The “rarest of the rare” doctrine, which was established in the case of Bacchan v. State of Punjab (1980), signifies that the crime was “exceptionally violent,” and that the accused deserved the death punishment because of the same.
Ediga Anamma v. the State of Andhra Pradesh (1974)
The appellant, a simple young lady who had been whipped out of her husband’s home by her father-in-law, was living with her parents and her sole kid. She committed a premeditated, cleverly planned murder of another young woman and her child because of rivalry between the appellant and the murdered woman for the affections of an illicit lover. The death sentence was handed out by the Sessions Court and affirmed by the High Court. A bench of Justices Krishnaiyer, V.R. Sarkaria, and Ranjit Singh of the Supreme Court of India while debating on the issue of punishment, had compiled a list of “positive indicators against the death penalty under Indian law” in the present case of Ediga Anamma v. the State of Andhra Pradesh (1974).
Observations of the Apex Court
- Modern criminology considers crime and criminality to be equally important when determining the appropriate sentence, despite the fact that our procedural system lacks comprehensive provisions and adequate machinery for collecting and presenting the criminal’s social and personal data to the extent required in the sentencing verdict. The obvious shift in legislative focus is that life imprisonment for murder is now the rule, with the death penalty being reserved for certain circumstances. The State’s troubled conscience on the thorny issue of a legal danger to life in the form of a death sentence has attempted to express itself through legislation, with the trend toward cautious partial abolition and a retreat from absolute retention.
- The Supreme Court determined that the convict’s age, both young and elderly, would be an important element to evaluate in her favour. It also said that socio-economic, psychological, or penal compulsions’ that may not be sufficient to justify a legal exemption might nonetheless be considered as sentencing considerations. Other favourable circumstances mentioned by the Court were the guilt of other accused people, the absence of premeditation, and the length of time spent under a death sentence. On the other hand, the way in which the crime was committed, the weapon used, and the nature of the victim would all be important elements in imposing a harsher penalty.
- The matter at hand must be resolved with respect to the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and the Court must rely on the judicial procedural technique of imposing or avoiding the death penalty, helped by the circumstances that are present on the record for the aim of establishing guilt. In this case, the criminal’s social and personal factors, such as her feminity and youth, her unbalanced sex and expulsion from the conjugal home, and her status as the mother of a young boy are individually inconclusive and cumulatively marginal facts and circumstances, which all point to a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
- The larger idea that swift punishment, even if only for a life sentence, is more deterrent than a leisurely judicial death sentence with liberal executive clemency, and that stricter police checks on illicit weapons deter better as a social defence against murderous violence than a distant death sentence, is not an afterthought in a court decision on the appropriate form of punishment.
- As crime and punishment are functionally tied to society, the current societal conditions must be considered, and the deterrent element of punishment must be balanced with the possibility of individual reformation. The death penalty was converted to life imprisonment in this instance taking into account the facts of the case.
Shankar Kisanrao Khade v. the State of Maharashtra (2013)
Shankar Kisanrao Khade and his wife Mala Shankar Khade were charged with offences punishable under Sections 363, 366-A, 376, 302, and 201 read with Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 for kidnapping a juvenile girl, raping her multiple times, and strangling her to death. For the rape and murder of the child with intellectual disabilities, the appellant was found guilty and condemned to death. The sentence was converted to life in prison by the Supreme Court.
Observations of the Supreme Court of India
The observations made by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India comprising Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Madan B. Lokur, in the present case of Shankar Kisanrao Khade v. State of Maharashtra (2013) have been provided hereunder:
- The “crime test,” “criminal test,” and “R-R test,” were ruled to be the tests that must be applied when imposing the punishment, instead of the “balancing test”. This meant that even if aggravating factors were present to the maximum degree possible and there were no mitigating circumstances in the accused’s favour, the court had to use the “rarest of the rare” principle before imposing the death penalty.
- The application of the “rarest of rare” standard, according to the Court, was contingent on whether society would support the death penalty being imposed or not. Justice Lokur noted in his concurring opinion that the Indian Law Commission might look at whether the death sentence is a deterrent punishment, retributive justice, or fulfils an incapacitative objective. It’s worth noting that, in Mahesh Dhanaji Shinde v. the State of Maharashtra (2014), the Supreme Court stated that the observations in Shankar Kisanrao Khade v. State of Maharashtra (2013) may be contrary to Bachan Singh v. the State of Punjab (1980), which cautioned against treating aggravating and mitigating circumstances as watertight compartments.
Manoharan v. State by Inspector of Police (2019)
In the present case of Manoharan v. State by Inspector of Police (2019), the Supreme Court of India was considering the appeal of a convict sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a minor girl and the murder of his minor brother. A huge number of witnesses were questioned by the prosecution. The trial court subsequently found the appellant guilty under Sections 120-B, 364-A, 376, 302 read with Section 34, and 201 of the Indian Penal Code in a lengthy ruling. The Appellant was sentenced to life in prison under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, and to death under Section 302 of the same Code. The Appellant’s convictions under Sections 120-B and 364-A of the Penal Code were overturned by the High Court of Madras, but the penalties under Sections 376 and 302 read with Section 34 were upheld. The death sentence given by the trial court was eventually affirmed by the High Court after examining aggravating and mitigating factors.
Observations of the Apex Court
- The Supreme Court, in a majority judgement written by Justice Nariman, maintained the appellant’s death sentence. On the issue of sentencing, Justice Sanjeev Khanna dissented and preferred the lower term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Justice Khanna emphasised in his dissenting opinion that the Apex Court in Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab (1983) required two questions to be answered in order to establish whether a case was the rarest of rare. These questions were whether the crime was unusual enough that life imprisonment was insufficient and if the circumstances of the crime were such that there was no other option than to inflict the death penalty.
- The five elements mentioned by the Court in Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab (1983) (manner of commission of murder, the purpose of murder, the anti-social or odious character of the crime, the enormity of the crime, and victim’s personality) are relevant to the first issue, according to Justice Khanna. The second question must also be addressed, and this can be done by referring to mitigating factors. He stressed that the death penalty could only be applied if the possibility of a life sentence was ruled out.
- Justice Khanna observed in the circumstances of the case that the Appellant had freely confessed to the offence before a magistrate and that this was the first step back into society and should be viewed as a mitigating element. As a result, he believed that the proper sentence, in this case, would be life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Alternatives to death penalty
Content under this heading is a continuation of the previous discussions. The two landmark decisions that are discussed hereunder reflect the Apex Court’s willingness to use the death penalty as a form of deterrence rarely.
Rajesh Kumar v. State through Government of NCT of Delhi (2011)
The case of Rajesh Kumar v. the State through Government of NCT of Delhi (2011), concerned an appeal by a death row inmate who was sentenced for the murder of two minor children. The Supreme Court in this present case had based its judgement on the reason that if the court is persuaded that the prosecution’s account is true, the conviction must follow. The matter of sentencing must be decided based on whether there are any mitigating circumstances that may be argued to alleviate the gravity of the crime and not on the amount or nature of the evidence presented by the prosecution in support of the prosecution case.
Supreme Court’s observations
- The atrocities were carried out with extreme severity and brutality, without provocation, and on purpose. In a criminal trial, the type and intensity of the offence, not the offender, are relevant in determining the proper penalty. If an adequate penalty is not given for a crime committed not only against the individual victim but also against the society to which the perpetrator and victim belong, the Court will be failing in its duty. The penalty for a crime must not be arbitrary; it must correspond to and be commensurate with the cruelty and brutality with which the crime was committed, the enormity of the crime warranting public revulsion, and it must “respond to society’s demand for justice against the guilty.”
- The State had failed to prove that the appellant is a continuing threat to society or that he was incapable of reform and rehabilitation in this case. The fact that there was no evidence to prove that the accused was incapable of being reformed or rehabilitated in society was obvious from the High Court’s decision, which was viewed as a neutral situation. In the opinion of the Supreme Court, the High Court made an obvious mistake. Because the State had not shown any proof to the contrary, the fact that the accused could be rehabilitated in society and was capable of being reformed was unquestionably a mitigating element that the High Court had neglected to consider. The death sentence given by the High Court was not upheld by the Apex Court, and the appellant’s death sentence was replaced with a life term.
Rajendra Pralhadrao Wasnik v. the State of Maharashtra (2019)
The Supreme Court was considering a review petition filed by a man who had been condemned to death for the rape and murder of a minor, in the present case of Rajendra Pralhadrao Wasnik v. the State of Maharashtra (2019).
Observations of the court of law
- ‘The likelihood (not possibility, improbability, or impossibility) that a criminal can be reformed and rehabilitated in society must be carefully and genuinely weighed by the courts before giving the death penalty,’ the Court had concluded after reviewing many earlier Supreme Court rulings while deciding the present case.
- It went on to say that in order to carry out this duty, the prosecution must demonstrate to the Court, by evidence, that the prisoner cannot be reformed or rehabilitated. Importantly, the Court decided that the criminal might also testify about his or her efforts to change.
- It was also decided that even if the convict’s social reintegration is impossible, the choice of a lengthier sentence is admissible. As a result, the Court mitigated the death penalty to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole till the end of one’s natural life.
The procedure that follows a death warrant
The procedure that follows a death warrant is a complex one and demands proper understanding. The case laws discussed hereunder will guide the reader through the same.
Shabnam v. the Union of India (2015)
In the present case of Shabnam v. the Union of India (2015) two death row inmates filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India, contesting the execution warrant issued by the trial court barely six days after their appeal was denied by the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court’s observations
- When judicial and administrative remedies in a death sentence case are still pending, the Court ruled that issuing an execution warrant is illegal. It was found in this case that the petitioners had to be allowed the limitation period for submitting a review and then a fair time to file a mercy petition.
- The Supreme Court also endorsed the Allahabad High Court’s recommendations in the case of Peoples’ Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) v. the Union of India and Ors. (2015), making them necessary in all cases:
- The prisoner must be notified of the warrant that will be issued by the Sessions Court so that she can retain legal representation.
- The execution date and hour must be included in the death warrant.
- There must be a fair amount of time between the date of the warrant’s order and the execution date so that the convict can seek legal redress and visit her family.
- Where required the convict must be provided with legal aid.
- The prisoner must be given a copy of the warrant right away.
Yakub Abdul Razak Memon v. the State of Maharashtra (2015)
In the present case of Yakub Abdul Razak Memon v. the State of Maharashtra (2015), without notifying the petitioner, the trial court issued a death warrant against him, with a 90-day execution date. Meanwhile, the petitioner’s curative plea had been dismissed, so he filed another mercy petition after his first had been denied.
Observations by the Supreme Court of India
- As the first mercy petition had already been denied and the petitioner had not appealed that denial, the Supreme Court concluded that the pendency of the second mercy plea would have no effect on the death warrant.
- Furthermore, it was decided that the fact that the petitioner was not given notice before the issuing of the death warrants did not invalidate it (as per the law in Shabnam (2015)) because the petitioner had exercised his legal rights afterward by filing a curative petition.
- The second mercy petition was likewise denied after this ruling was issued, and the petitioner then went back to the Apex Court, asking for more time to appeal the refusal. The Supreme Court declined to postpone the execution warrants once more, citing the fact that the initial mercy petition’s denial had not been contested.
Same day sentencing in death penalty cases
Same day sentencing in death penalty cases leaves room for negligent decision-making by the courts of law leading to defect in the justice delivery system. The Supreme Court of India has time and again intervened in rectifying the same.
Santa Singh v. the State of Punjab (1976)
In the present case of Santa Singh v. the State of Punjab (1976), the appellant was found guilty of killing his mother and his second spouse. He was convicted by the trial court and was condemned to death on the same day. The Sessions Court found the appellant guilty of violating Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and condemned him to death as well. His lawyer was not present on the day of the hearing. As required by Section 235(2), Cr.P.C., 1973, the trial court did not provide the accused with a chance to be heard in relation to the sentence. In addition, the appellant did not assert his right to be heard. The same was also not taken up by the accused before the High Court.
Observations by the Supreme Court of India
- Under Section 235(1), the court must give a decision condemning or acquitting the accused in the first instance. If the accused is found not guilty, the case is to be closed. If the accused is found guilty, he must be given an opportunity to be heard on the penalty, and the court can only pass a sentence after hearing him. Section 235(2) is a new provision that aligns with current criminology and sentencing practises. Sentencing is a vital step in the administration of criminal justice, and it should not be overlooked.
- The terms “hear the accused” in Section 235(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, indicates that the accused had to be given the chance to present numerous factors relevant to the sentencing before the Court and that this opportunity was not limited to merely an oral hearing. It was also noted that failure to comply with Section 235(2) does not constitute an irregularity punishable under Section 465 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, because it relates to the omission of an important step of the trial.
- In his concurring judgement, Justice Fazl Ali observed that an opportunity to provide evidence in relation to a sentence may demand an adjournment, which should normally be for no more than 14 days to prevent delay. The case was finally remanded to the Trial Court to provide the accused a chance to make a statement about the sentencing.
Ajay Pandit v. the State of Maharashtra (2012)
Ajay Pandit @ Jagdish Dayabhai Patel was sentenced to death by the Bombay High Court for double murder in two different events, one for the murder of Nilesh Bhailal Patel and the other for the murder of Jayashree. The appellant, a dentist who was found guilty and sentenced to death on the same day for drugging and murdering two people for money while claiming to be able to assist them, acquired a visa through his contacts at the American Embassy.
Decision by the Supreme Court of India
- The Supreme Court affirmed the conviction in the present case of Ajay Pandit v. State of Maharashtra (2012). The death sentence, however, was overturned, and the case was sent to the High Court for consideration of the penalty.
- The Apex Court had viewed that the High Court had made no serious effort to obtain any information from the accused or the prosecution on the existence of any factors that would influence the court to avert the death penalty.
- The Apex Court had further declared that the death penalty is an exception rather than a rule and that it should only be used in the “rarest of rare” instances. It stressed the High Court’s duty and obligation to obtain crucial facts even if the accused has remained completely mute in such cases.
Md. Mannan @ Abdul Mannan v. the State of Bihar (2019)
In the present case of Md. Mannan @ Abdul Mannan v. the State of Bihar (2019), the Supreme Court of India was considering a petition for review in which the petitioner was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a minor.
The Apex Court and its observations
- The Supreme Court in the present case held that imposing a death sentence on the same day as a conviction does not invalidate the sentence if the convict is given a meaningful and effective hearing on the question of sentence under Section 235(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, with the opportunity to present mitigating evidence.
- The Apex Court further stated that the trial court’s preponement of the hearing under Section 235(2) on short notice, effectively no notice, had denied the petitioner an effective hearing since the hearing under Section 235(2), and the same had been reduced to a mere formality.
- The death penalty was reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by the Supreme Court of India.
Death sentencing and its procedure
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 lays down the procedure that needs to be followed in sentencing death to an individual, which along with the principles of just, fairness and reasonability needs to be followed. The judgments discussed hereunder provide an overview of the same.
Mukesh and Anr. v. the State for NCT of Delhi and ors. (2017)
In the present case of Mukesh and Anr. v. State for NCT of Delhi and ors. (2017), the appellants were convicted for the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman.
Supreme Court’s observations
- The Supreme Court noted that the lower courts did not follow Section 235 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, since aggravating and mitigating factors were not weighed for each individual accused in the present case.
- The Court ruled that there are two ways to correct sentencing errors:
- Remand the case; and
- Require the accused to furnish appropriate facts and advance the argument on the sentencing issue.
Following the second method, the Court allowed the accused to produce affidavits as well as papers outlining the mitigating circumstances. The accused’s attorneys were given daily visits to the jail to meet with the accused and file the necessary affidavits and paperwork. The final judgement, in this case, was delivered on May 5, 2017, reported as Mukesh and Anr. v. State (NCT of Delhi) (2017).
In Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons (2019)
In 2013, Retd. Justice R.C. Lahoti’s letter to the then-Chief Justice of India was accepted as a writ petition, requesting that the inhumane circumstances in India’s 1382 prisons be addressed. Between 2016 and 2018, a succession of directives was issued to correct the situation.
Supreme Court’s ruling
- The Supreme Court in light of the present case of In Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons (2019) ruled that inmates on death row are entitled to meetings and interviews with their attorneys, close family members, and even mental health specialists within the terms of the current decree.
- The view expressed in Francis Coralie Mullin v. State (UT of Delhi) (1981) was held to be equally applicable to death row inmates for meeting mental health professionals for a reasonable period of time and with a reasonable frequency so that their rights could be adequately protected at all stages.
Public opinion concerning death sentencing
The judgments discussed hereunder reflect the relation between the role of public opinion and death sentencing.
Dhananjoy Chatterjee alias Dhana v. State of West Bengal (1994)
In the present case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee alias Dhana v. State of West Bengal (1994), for the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl, the appellant was found guilty and condemned to death which was later upheld by the Calcutta High Court.
Supreme Court’s judgement
- While upholding the death penalty, the Supreme Court stated that the punishment must be proportionate to the offence in order for the courts to reflect popular disapproval of the act.
- It was determined that while deciding on a suitable punishment, courts must consider not only the criminal’s rights but also the rights of the victim and society as a whole.
M.A. Antony v. State of Kerala (2010)
In the present case of M.A. Antony v. State of Kerala (2010), the petitioner was found guilty of murdering six people and was sentenced to death. The Kerala High Court upheld the conviction and death sentence, and the Supreme Court upheld it afterward. The Supreme Court was hearing a petition for reconsideration of its own decision sustaining the death penalty.
Apex Court’s decision
- The Supreme Court of India modified the death sentence to life in prison, noting that the trial court erred by considering the crime’s impact on society’s collective conscience.
- It was decided that while punishing a defendant convicted of a heinous act, judges should avoid referring to public opinion and what they regard to be the collective conscience of society.
- The Supreme Court agreed with the decisions in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980) and Santhosh Kumar Satishbushan Bariyar v. State of Maharashtra (2009) that judges should not become public figures and should maintain judicial restraint.
Invoking appellate and review jurisdiction by the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court was considering a petition for review in the case of Babasaheb Maruti Kamble v. the State Of Maharashtra (2018), in which the petitioner had been condemned to death for rape and murder. The Supreme Court had dismissed the appeals in limine in 2015. (dismissed at the threshold without reasons).
The Court rescinded the in limine dismissal of the Special Leave Petition (SLP) and reinstated its original number. Following that, the Court remitted the death sentence to at least twenty-five years in jail. The Court also looked at a number of decisions to support the idea that, in death penalty cases, an independent assessment of the evidence must be made, unconstrained by the trial and High Court conclusions. The Court concluded that an SLP filed in a case involving a death sentence should not be dismissed without cause, at least in terms of the death penalty.
Associating mental health with death penalty
The aspect of mental health has been in existence for a long but has received attention a few years ago. The judiciary has successfully related the same with the death penalty.
Shatrughan Chauhan and Another v. Union of India and Others (2014)
The Supreme Court heard a group of writ petitions filed by or on behalf of 15 death row inmates contesting the Governor and President’s rejection of their mercy applications, in the present case of Shatrughan Chauhan and Another v. Union of India and Others (2014). Commutation of a death sentence to life imprisonment was requested in two of these petitions on the grounds of mental illness.
Observations by Supreme Court of India
- Insanity/mental illness/schizophrenia is a critical supervening condition that a court should examine while evaluating whether a death sentence might be reduced to life imprisonment under the facts and circumstances of a particular case.
- The Supreme Court further stated that holding a person in suspense for several years while the President considers his mercy appeal imposes anguish, as well as harmful physical and psychological stress on the convict who is serving a death sentence.
- The Apex Court observed that it could forgive the torturous delay imposed to the convict only on the basis of the seriousness of the offence when reviewing the President’s denial of the mercy plea under Article 32 read with Article 21 of the Constitution.
Accused X v. State of Maharashtra (2019)
In the present case of Accused X v. State of Maharashtra (2019), the Supreme Court was considering a petition for review in which the petitioner was found guilty and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two underage girls. One of the issues before the Supreme Court was whether the accused’s post-conviction mental illness might be cited as a mitigating factor in reducing his death sentence to life in prison.
Observations of Supreme Court of India
- In this case, the Supreme Court acknowledged post-conviction mental illness as a mitigating reason for the death penalty to be commuted to life imprisonment.
- The Supreme Court, observing that there appear to be no standard disorders/disabilities for judging “serious mental disease,” established a “test of severity” as a guiding criterion for identifying mental illnesses that qualify for an exemption. These diseases, according to the court, include schizophrenia, other significant psychotic disorders, and dissociative disorders associated with schizophrenia.
In this article, the subject matter of the death penalty has been discussed in detail keeping in mind the various aspects associated with it. Each case has its own traits to be a landmark in nature as they have contributed significantly in framing the death penalty jurisprudence in India.
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