The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that death row convicts would be entitled to an open court hearing of their review petitions in cases where capital punishment has been upheld.
The verdict puts an end to the practice of judges deciding on review petitions by circulating it among themselves in the privacy of their chambers.
A five-judge Constitution bench -- by a majority verdict of four to one – said that a three-judge bench would hear review petitions for a maximum of 30 minutes in all death sentence cases.
The provision of review petitions allows the SC to take a re-look at its decisions and is generally filed by the aggrieved party after losing their case in the apex court. Review petitions are usually heard by the same bench of judges who decide a particular case.
“Death penalty is irreversible in nature. If it is found afterwards that such a sentence was not warranted, it would be of no use as the life of the convict cannot be brought back,” said the bench, headed by Chief Justice of India RM Lodha. Justice J Chelameswar gave the dissenting verdict.
In its judgment, the SC said the law of open-court hearings would be applicable to pending and future review petitions.
It will also apply to cases where a review petition has already been dismissed but the death sentence has not been executed. In such cases, petitioners can apply for reopening of their review petition within one month from the date of this judgment.
However, if the curative petition – the last available legal recourse and one that is filed when the review petition has been rejected -- has been dismissed in a particular case, it won’t be reopened by the court.
Retired Delhi high court judge Justice RS Sodhi welcomed the decision, saying, “It is a step towards the judges acknowledging the seriousness of death sentences. Capital punishment can be given by mistake, due to a lawyer’s incompetence or even the judge’s preconceived notions.”
An Amnesty report submitted to the SC showed that out of the 100-odd death sentences handed out by the judiciary every year, the top court is responsible for around 60.
The decision came on a batch of petitions filed by death row prisoners including 1993 Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon and Red Fort shootout case accused Mohd Arif.
The court was, however, unanimous that prolonged judicial proceedings cannot be a ground for commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment.
“Delay in judicial proceedings during time taken in court proceedings cannot be taken into account to say there is a delay that would convert a death sentence into one for life,” the court said, dismissing the plea of Mohd Arif, in jail for the last 13.5 years.
Read: Death penalty review plea decision a ‘welcome move’