SC enforces a landmark ruling on death penalty

Updated on Mar 02, 2022 04:46 AM IST

A bench headed by Justice Uday U Lalit has made psychological evaluation of the condemned prisoner mandatory, as well as a report on the inmate’s conduct at the time of examining whether the gallows remains the only fitting punishment.

The Supreme Court. (HT PHOTO.)
The Supreme Court. (HT PHOTO.)
By, New Delhi

More than four decades after a landmark ruling on death sentence cases, a bench in the Supreme Court has made psychological evaluation of the condemned prisoner mandatory, along with seeking a report on the inmate’s conduct at the time of examining whether the gallows remains the only fitting punishment.

The measure has been adopted by a bench, headed by justice Uday U Lalit, which took recourse to the spirit of the Supreme Court’s verdict in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980). This verdict established the doctrine of “rarest of rare” crime in handing down capital punishment while mandating a comparative analysis of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in connection to the accused.

Taking a cue from the Bachan Singh verdict, justice Lalit, in a series of death sentences cases, has recently held that “complete assistance” to the court in such matters would necessitate the production of not just the evidence in the case but also the latest state of the mental health of the prisoner.

“In terms of law laid down by the Constitution bench of this court in Bachan Singh, relevant material touching upon the issues concerning mitigating factors ought to have been produced on record...” the judge stated in several of his orders starting last year.

The usual practice in the top court has been to stay the execution of the prisoner on the first date of hearing while adjourning the case to a later date. But justice Lalit has opined that the assessment of various factors pertaining to the condemned prisoner before beginning of the final arguments would effectively assist the court in ascertaining the suitable punishment.

“The assessment as regards conduct of the accused, if made in advance before the learned counsel for both sides advance their submissions, will be helpful in every respect,” said the judge in his three different but identically worded orders in January and February. The appeals were taken up against confirmation of death sentence by the high courts in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra.

These orders directed the authorities in the state government and concerned prison department to ensure the head of a government medical care institution constitutes a suitable team for psychological evaluation of the prisoner. “We also feel that interest of justice dictates that we obtain a psychological evaluation of the petitioner,” stated these orders, asking a report to be placed before the court by a team comprising a trained psychiatrist and a psychologist.

The set of four directives included seeking a report from the probation officer on the inmate’s behaviour during incarceration. “We direct that the report of the jail administration about the nature of the work done by petitioner in jail be placed before us before the next date of hearing,” said the court orders, which directed jail authorities to cooperate with the team of experts for facilitating access and due evaluation of the prisoners.

The Bachan Singh case laid down that a court must scrutinise both the crime as well as the criminal, and then decide whether death penalty is the only suitable punishment in the facts of the case. Emphasis is to be also laid on the aggravating and mitigating factors which are dependent upon the facts and circumstances of the case, it held.

In Machi Singh vs State of Punjab (1983), the Supreme Court elucidated the doctrine of “rarest of rare” and set down some guiding principles in the death sentences cases. The aggravating circumstances included the manner in which the crime was committed, motive for committing the crime, severity of the crime, and the victim of the crime. The mitigating circumstances comprised of the possibility of reformation and rehabilitation of an accused, his mental health and his antecedents.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that unexplained delay in execution was a ground for commutation of death penalty, and an inmate, his or her kin, or even a public-spirited citizen, could file a writ petition seeking such commutation. It held that prolonging execution of death sentence has a “dehumanising effect” on condemned prisoners who have to face the agony of waiting for years under the shadow of death during the pendency of their mercy plea. An inordinate delay would certainly have an agonising effects on their body and mind, it added.

In the same year, a Constitution bench also held that a review petition by a death-row convict will be heard by a three-judge bench in open court. Such cases were earlier being considered by two-judge benches in the judges’ chamber without any oral arguments.

“The law, for more than 40 years now, has required that a wide-range of information be brought before judges while they determine punishment. That has received very little attention and from late last year onwards, the Supreme Court has turned its attention to this long ignored aspect,” said Anup Surendranath, executive director, Project 39A at National Law University, Delhi.

Project 39A is a criminal justice research and legal aid program at the university that has worked extensively in death penalty cases.

“The enormity of the task before the Supreme Court is captured by the fact that trial courts in India have already sentenced more than 50 people to death in 2022 and often in violation of procedural and substantive laws. It is not going to be easy for the Supreme Court to bring about a balance of fairness and consistency in death penalty sentencing across courts in India but the fact that the court has chosen to address it head-on is certainly noteworthy and worthy of our appreciation,” Surendranath added.

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