Supreme Court commutes death sentence to life imprisonment

A Bench of Justices Dipak Misra, R F Nariman and U U Lalit said that, “Though no time limit can be fixed within which the mercy petition ought to be disposed of, in our considered view the period of 3 years and 10 months to deal with such mercy petitions in the present case comes within the expression “inordinate delay.”

Supreme Court considering the period of 3 years and 10 months delay by the Centre in deciding mercy petition of a prisoner as “inordinate delay” has commuted the death sentence of the condemned prisoner to life imprisonment.

While granting relief to the convict, the Supreme Court also noted that the right of death convict was further violated by incarcerating him in solitary confinement for the last seven years ever since his death sentence was upheld by it in 2007.

The Supreme Court had earlier ruled that a death convict should never be put to solitary confinement till his mercy petition was disposed of.

It is a case where the convict Mr. Ajay Kumar Pal, who was awarded death sentence by trial court in April 2007 for killing 5 people including three children. Offence occurred in the year 2003. His conviction and sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court on March16, 2010. Within a month he sent his mercy plea. Subsequently, his mercy petition was rejected by the President of India on November 08, 2013.

Convict thereafter moved Supreme Court for commutation of his death sentence on grounds of delay on the part of Government in deciding his mercy plea. Bench observed that, “the combined effect of the inordinate delay in disposal of mercy petition and the solitary confinement for such a long period, in our considered view has caused deprivation of the most cherished right. A case is definitely made out under Article 32 of the Constitution of India and this Court deems it proper to reach out and grant solace to the petitioner for the ends of justice. We, therefore, commute the sentence and substitute the sentence of life imprisonment in place of death sentence awarded to the petitioner.”

Capital Punishment: Should it be gender biased?

Prachi Kumari, Student, Law School, BHU, Varanasi

Honourable President Pranab Mukherjee late last month rejected Renuka Kiran Shinde and her sister Seema Mohan Gavit’s mercy petitions. Now the Maharashtra Government is all set to hang them. Two Kolhapur women, who were sentenced to death in 2001 for kidnapping 13 children and killing nine of them, may become the first women ever to be hanged in India.

In India, as per directions of the Supreme Court, death penalty is used very sparingly and is awarded only in the cases, which fall under ‘rarest of the rare category’. The test of ‘rarest of rare’ case was laid down by Honourable Supreme Court for the first time in the case of Bachan Singh V State of Punjab ((1980 (2) SCC 684)). The apex court laid down a few principles which were to be kept in mind while deciding the question of sentence. One of the very important principles is regarding aggravating and mitigating circumstances. It has been the view of the court that while deciding the question of sentence, a balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in that particular case has to be drawn. Full weight age should be given to the mitigating circumstances and even after that if the court feels that justice will not be done if any punishment less than death sentence is awarded, then and then only death sentence should be imposed.

Again in Machhi Singh V State of Punjab ((1983 (3) SCC 470)), the court laid down: – “In order to apply these guidelines inter alia the following questions must be asked and answered:-

  1. Is there something uncommon about the crime which render sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence?
  2. Are these circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weight age to the mitigating circumstances which speaks in favour of the offenders?

In the present case, While awarding the death sentence to the sisters in 2001, Judge G L Yedke in Kolhapur had described the nine kids’ murders as ‘the most heinous’, and observed that the two sisters seemed to have enjoyed killing the children.

Capital Punishment has always been a controversial issue and in the present case as well, there is possibility that some NGOs and Human Rights activities may make hue and cry over gender issue.

In India, an offender is given so many chances to defend himself/herself. For instance, after the award of the death sentence by a sessions (trial) court, the sentence must be confirmed by a High Court to make it final. Once confirmed, the condemned convict has the option of appealing to the Supreme Court. If this is not possible, or if the Supreme Court turns down the appeal or refuses to hear the petition, the condemned person can submit a ‘mercy petition’ to the President of India and the Governor of the State.

This system ensures protection of an innocent person from death penalty and is gender-neutral. I strongly support this system and want every criminal to be punished be it male or female. If a woman can commit such heinous crime, she must be awarded the same penalty a man gets. Therefore, this system should stay gender neutral.