No Gallows for Gala –SC’s power while Commuting Death Sentences

Reported By: Swarnim Shrivastava

The Apex Court is competent and has jurisdiction to fix a particular period of years, with or without remission, when it commutes death sentences to life term while upholding the conviction of accused under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.

This was held by the Supreme Court while rejecting a writ petition filed by Gurvail Singh alias ‘Gala’ for converting his sentence from 30 years in jail without remission to life imprisonment and also seeking a declaration that this court was not competent to fix a particular number of years (with or without remission) when it commuted the death sentence.

The petitioner, along with the co-accused, was charged with killing four persons on the mid night of August 20-21, 2000 and the trial court in Punjab awarded a death penalty and this was confirmed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The Supreme Court bench rejected Gala’s argument and said the issue raised in this petition was elaborately dealt with by a three-judge Bench in Swamy Shraddananda case, in which it was held that life imprisonment could not be equivalent to imprisonment for 14 or 20 years, rather it always meant the whole natural life.

The two judge bench held, “This court has always clarified that the punishment so awarded would be subject to any order passed in exercise of the clemency powers of the President or the Governor, as the case may be. Pardon, reprieve and remissions are granted in exercise of prerogative power. The power to grant pardons and to commute sentences is coupled with a duty to exercise the same fairly and reasonably. Thus, such orders do not interfere with the sovereign power of the state.”

Furthermore, the Bench said: “This court issued orders to deprive a convict of the benefit of remissions only in cases where the death sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment and it does not apply in all cases wherein the person has been sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Indian Criminal jurisprudence is based on a merger of deterrent and reformative theories of punishment. While the punishments are to be imposed to create deter amongst the offenders, the offenders are also to be given opportunity for reformation. Keeping these legal theories in mind, the legislatures drafted Sec. 354 (3) of the CR.P.C. This section lays down that special reasons are to be recorded by the Court for imposing death punishment in capital offences. Thus, the position of law after Cr.P.C. 1973 became that the general rule was life imprisonment while the death sentence was to be imposed only in “rarest of rare” cases.

In India, Commuting of death sentence can occur only through two ways:

The first is a ‘commutation’ of the death sentence by the appropriate government under provisions of the IPC and CrPC. The second is a commutation or pardon granted by the President of India or the Governor of the relevant state under Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution of India.

Section 54 of the IPC provides that the appropriate government may, in cases where a death sentence has been imposed, commute the punishment for any other punishment provided in the Code without the consent of the offender. This power to commute death sentences is given effect through Section 432, 433 and 433A of the CrPC. Section 432 CrPC grants powers to the appropriate government to suspend the execution of the sentence or to remit the whole or any part of the punishment imposed by the trial court without conditions or upon conditions which the accused accepts. Section 433 grants powers to the appropriate government to commute the death sentence to any other punishment provided under the IPC, without the consent of the convicted person. However in the event that a state government has exercised powers under Section 433 CrPC to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment, Section 433A stipulates that such person shall not be released from prison unless he has served at least 14 years imprisonment.

This judgement adds to the above cited law thereby including the competence of the Apex Court to fix a particular number of years with or without remission when it commutes death sentence to life term while upholding the conviction of the accused under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.

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