Supreme Court tweaks rules to fast-track appeals in death row cases
In a bid to expedite hearings in death penalty cases -- possibly prompted by delays in the hanging of the four men convicted of the December 2012 gang-rape and murder in Delhi that shocked the country -- the Supreme Court has decided that it will list for hearing, appeals from high courts challenging death penalty sentences within six months from the date on which the matter is admitted by the top court for hearing.
Such appeals will be listed before a three-judge bench within six months irrespective of whether all documents and records relating to the case have been filed or not.
These directions were given by the apex court on February 12 by way of an office order issued by the court on its administrative side.
The order also laid down deadlines for obtaining records of the case from high courts and for parties to file additional documents in the case.
The order states that as soon as an appeal involving a death penalty is filed, a communication will be sent to the concerned high court by the Supreme Court registry calling for the original records of the case within sixty days. This includes translation of documents which are in vernacular language.
Further, the order also said that once Supreme Court admits the matter, additional documents should be filed by parties within thirty days from the date on which registry of the court intimates the parties of the same.
If records or additional documents are not received or filed within the prescribed time period, the case will be listed before judge in chambers so that appropriate directions can be passed. This marks a departure from the current practice of listing those cases in which filings have not been completed, before the registrar court.
These procedural changes come in the backdrop of the events surrounding the hanging of the four convicts in the 2012 Delhi gang rape case.
The four men, Mukesh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay were convicted for the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus in Delhi.
They were sentenced to death by the trial court in 2013 and their conviction and sentence were confirmed by the Delhi high court in 2014. However, after the appeal was filed in Supreme Court in March 2014, it took more than three years before the top court eventually confirmed their death sentence in May 2017.
Further, another two-and-half years passed before review petitions of the convicts were dismissed. While the review petitions of three of the four convicts were dismissed in July 2018, a fourth convict filed his review petition only in December 10, 2019. It was dismissed on December 18, 2019.
The curative petitions filed by three of the convicts have also been dismissed but one convict, Pawan Gupta is yet to file his curative petition since there is no time limit prescribed for filing curative petitions.
After the trial court issued death warrant to execute the convicts, they pointed out the fact that they have not exhausted their legal remedies leading to postponement of the hanging date.
“There is a good ground for classifying death penalty cases and expediting the hearing in Supreme Court. This is to reduce the time spent by the death row convicts awaiting their fate. As far as death row convict is concerned, his chances of death sentence getting commuted to life imprisonment on account of delay might reduce since the time spent on death row might be reduced. But the fact that there is no time limit to file remedies such as curative petitions might mean that these changes might remain an empty letter”, advocate Philip Mathew said.