The Supreme Court (SC), in two recent judgments, has held that there is no reason to impose death penalty if a convict can be rehabilitated and reformed. The SC's remarks could put a different spin on the controversies surrounding clemencies for Afzal Guru and the plotters of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.
On Friday, a division bench of justice P Sathasivam and justice BS Chauhan on commuted a death sentence to life imprisonment following an appeal by the accused Kishor Matkari. Matkari challenged a decision of the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court, which enhanced a life sentence to that of death. Earlier in the week, a division bench of justice DK Jain and justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, substituted the death sentence of accused Rajesh Kumar after he appealed against the sentence awarded by the Delhi high court.
In both cases, the judges examined facts that went into making a case 'rarest of rare' and whether a significant mitigating factor justified exemption from a death penalty. The judges also noted that it was necessary to look into factors such as criminal antecedents and socio-economic background of the convicts.
In Kumar's case, the division bench, referring to constitutional judgments and the internationally accepted standards, pointed out that "the death sentence should only be imposed instead of life sentence in 'rarest of rare' cases where the crime or crimes are of exceptional heinousness and the individual has no significant mitigation and is considered beyond reformation."
The bench also observed that the court must show a real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life, which must postulate resistance to taking life through law's instrumentality. Except in 'rarest of rare cases' and for 'special reasons', death sentence cannot be imposed as an alternative option to the imposition of life sentence.
Meanwhile, in Matkari's case, the high court held that there was no reason to disbelieve that the accused could not be reformed or rehabilitated or that he was likely to continue criminal acts of violence and be a menace to society.