In 2022, trial courts in India imposed most death sentences in 20 years

Why in News?

  • At the end of last year, 539 prisoners were on death row in India, the highest since at least 2016. This is according to the Annual Statistics Report 2022, published by Project 39A, a study conducted by the National Law University Delhi. 

What was the SC’s earlier Judgement?

  • It has never been the effort of the Courts to somehow make this punishment [sentence of death] redundant and non-existent for all practical purposes.
  • Though the apex court has held that capital punishment should be awarded only in the rarest of rare cases and even proposed extended prison term without remission, the judiciary cannot ignore death penalty as an alternative punishment as long as it remains in the law books. The quest for justice in such cases, with death sentence being awarded and maintained only in extreme cases, does not mean that the matter would be approached and examined in the manner that death sentence has to be avoided, even if the matter indeed calls for such a punishment.
  • The hunt for mitigating circumstances to help save a condemned prisoner from the noose should not be an excuse to forsake death penalty.

What has the court said before?

  • 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.
  • It has also sought a report on the inmate’s conduct at the time of examining whether the gallows remains the only fitting punishment.

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.
  • The judgment 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.

Machi Singh vs State of Punjab (1983):

  • In this case, 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 consisted of the possibility of reformation and rehabilitation of an accused, his mental health and his antecedents.

What has the Court said on prolonging death sentences and review petitions?

  • 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.
  • 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.

Challenges ahead:

  • 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.
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