Death penalty
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This article is written by Jagriti Sanghi, an Advocate practising in the Courts of Telangana. This article discusses some well-known death penalty cases in India.

This article has been published by Abanti Bose.


​​Law and morality are at a dubious stage. Whether one should go on the path of law or should one go with morals. If one should go with morals, then there would be no justice done to both the parties in the dispute. Therefore, one should go with the law but again morality will be questioned. For example, defending a rape case will go against the morality of that advocate. And the same thing acts as a bar when it comes to awarding the death sentence to the accused. Therefore, the rate of the death penalty is comparatively low in India. But since 2016, there is a growth in the rewarding of the death penalty in India as 65 per cent of the death sentence has been confirmed to be awarded. 

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Background of death sentence

In India, a death sentence is awarded only for the rarest of rare cases. Many precedents were in dispute when it came to awarding the death sentence. In Ediga Anamma v. the State of Andhra Pradesh, (1974) the Supreme Court laid down the principle that life imprisonment for the offence of murder is the rule and capital sentence is the exception in certain cases. The Court also stated that a special reason should be given if the court decides to impose a death sentence. 

In another case of Bachan Singh v. the State Of Punjab, (1980) the question was raised whether the punishment of the death penalty will amount to murder under Section 302 of the IPC? Another question that was raised in this case was, what all cases will come under exceptional cases for awarding the punishment of death sentence? The Supreme Court held that Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) is constitutionally valid and the death penalty won’t amount to murder. It stated that only in the rarest of rare cases that are brutal, the death penalty should be imposed. The Bench stated that numerous circumstances justify the imposition of a lesser sentence. Judges should not be bloodthirsty. 

Now the question arises how to determine the rarest of the rare cases? Two factors for that are: 1) When there is extreme culpability of the offender in committing the offence of murder; and, 2) when there is an extreme cause of the offender in committing the offence of murder. The death penalty is also awarded after seeing the aggravating and mitigating factors and balance of the same. 

Mitigating factors

Some mitigating factors observed by the Bench in the landmark Bachan Singh case are:

  • Mental or emotional status of the culprit;
  • Age of the accused, whether young or old;
  • That the accused can be reformed;
  • That the accused acted under coercion.

Aggravating factors

Some of the aggravating factors noted down by the Court in Bachan Singh case are:

  • Pre-planned murder
  • Calculated and cold-blooded murder
  • Helpless state of victim
  • Horrendous details of the crime committed
  • Shocking nature of the crime

But the Court didn’t explain how the mitigating and aggravating factors are to be balanced. The Court observed that all such situations where hanging should not be imposed as punishment cannot possibly be noted down in one place as it is humanly impossible to anticipate all the future circumstances and human behaviour in a society.

​​This balance was discussed under the case Machhi Singh and Others v. the State of Punjab (1983). A feud between the families took away seventeen lives. The Supreme Court explained the mitigating and aggravating factors and also gave the circumstances related to the imposition of the respected punishment. In the aggravating factor, murder should be pre-planned with extreme brutality or murdering a public servant on or off the duty. And in the mitigating factor, the court considers the circumstances of the offender along with the circumstances of the crime. Some of the most common aggravating factors discussed in the case are:

  • Is there something uncommon and unseen in the crime committed which warrants death punishment?; 
  • When the manner of commission of the crime is extremely revolting, disgusting, brutal, grotesque;
  • When the victim is inhumanly tortured to death;
  • Cold-blooded murder with deprave motive;
  • Bride burning, setting the house on fire, etc.

Therefore, where the case has a more aggravating factor, then in those cases the punishment will be of the death penalty and if there is more of the mitigating factor, then that will amount to life imprisonment. 

There has been an increment in awarding the death penalty in India since 2016. Furthermore, in an offence under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2019 (POCSO Act); the courts are given the power to sentence the punishment for the death penalty. In the following headings, a few insights into the most horrifying death row cases have been mentioned.

Vinay Sharma v. Union of India (2020)

The Vinay Sharma v. the Union of India (2020) case, also famously known as the Nirbhaya gang-rape case, had shocked the conscience of the whole country. The unfortunate and brutal incident occurred in the chilled weather of Delhi on a bus. The girl was brutally raped by six accused which also led to the death of the girl. An iron rod was also inserted into her private parts and she was thrown naked to the road. All the physical and mental torture led to her death. When the case was brought before the court, one of the accused committed suicide in jail and one of the accused was a juvenile so he was not sentenced to death. But the other four accused were sentenced to death and were also hanged in the year 2020. This judgement was concluded after analysing the aggravating and mitigating factors. The aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors if any. The death sentence was imposed because life imprisonment seemed inadequate considering the relevant circumstances of the crime and the inhuman torture committed on the victim which brought about her death.

Shabnam v. Union of India (2015)

In Shabnam v. the Union of India, (2015) the Court awarded a death sentence to the woman and the same was hanged for the first time in the Indian criminal justice system. In this case, Shabnam with her lover killed the members of her family. This incident happened in the year 2008. Shabnam killed her family members because they weren’t allowing her to marry her lover. Therefore, she planned a brutal murder for her family which amounted to be the aggravating factor. She didn’t even leave her young nephew (who was only 10 months old) and also led him to drape with blood. She also submitted mercy to the president which got rejected and she is mostly to be hanged by next year.

Hyderabad veterinarian case (2019)

In the Hyderabad veterinarian case (2019), the female doctor was all alone in the scooter which she parked to the Shamdabad plaza and from where she took the taxi to the office where she was going to work. In the meanwhile, four accused were monitoring her and which led them to puncture her scooter in her absence. When she was back from her work she saw that her scooter was punctured. And in the meanwhile, these four accused came and started forcing her and raping, burning her body. The case was a clear cut case for awarding death sentence, but here the police encountered the accused leading to questions about our Indian criminal justice system.

Sidhartha Vashisht @ Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi) (2010)

Sidhartha Vashisht @ Manu Sharma v. the State (NCT Of Delhi) (2010), also known as the Jessica Lal case, was one of the horrifying death cases which led the society to know that sometimes money can buy anything but cannot buy justice. In this case, the girl was shot to death when she refused to serve alcohol to one of the accused. Her sister had to run to all the courts for justice for her sister and finally, through a media trial, she led to having the suo motu case taken to the High Court. In this case, the accused manipulated the prime eye witness to become a hostile witness which led the court to award him the punishment of life imprisonment. This judgement was passed after seeing the balance between aggravating and mitigating factors.

Surendra Koli v. State of UP (2011)

Surendra Koli v. the State Of U.P. (2011), also famously known as Nithari Kaand, which happened in the year 2007 was one of the shocking updates for the Indians. In this case, the bodies of the deceased children and adults were found at the house of Mohinder Singh Pandher in the village of Noida called Nithari. When the case was studied in the depth it was found that the found bodies of the girls had been raped and killed and eaten by him. He had committed such a crime to fifteen girls and was awarded the death penalty. He was covered under the aggravating factors. But because of certain provisions of plea bargaining, he was given life imprisonment.


These were the few horrifying death cases that occurred in the history of the Indian criminal justice system. There are many cases for example Hathras gang rape case, Aarushi Talwar murder case (Noida double murder case), Unnao gang-rape case, in which the investigation or final judgment is pending but necessitate a capital sentence punishment for the gravity of the crime committed. These precedents act as the specimen case so that such brutal cases are not repeated in the future. And most importantly, the balance between aggravating and mitigating factors should always be considered while awarding judgements for such cases.


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