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Revisiting Death Penalty Jurisprudence


On April 22, a Bench of the Supreme Court of India, led by Justice U.U. Lalit, decided to critically examine the routine and abrupt way in which trial judges often impose the death penalty on convicts.


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Dimensions of the Article

  • Individualistic Approach
  • Background of the humane and reformist framework
  • Is the Bachan Singh doctrine followed?
  • Issue of misuse and overuse
  • Social Implications
  • What can be done?
  • Way Forward

Individualistic Approach

  • The challenge before the Court in the instant case of Irfan vs State of Madhya Pradesh was to identify the mitigating circumstances and to ensure a convict-centric approach so that the imposition of capital punishment becomes rarer, fairer, and principled.
  • According to the Court, “a ‘one size fit for all’ approach while considering mitigating factors during sentencing should end”.
  • Mitigation expert: The Bench indicated the need for mitigation experts to assist trial courts in reaching a correct conclusion on whether one should be sent to the gallows or not.
  • The Court seemed to think that an individualistic approach that examines the social, economic, emotional, and genetic components that constituted the offender rather than the offence, would go a long way in evolving a just and judicious sentencing policy.
  • An analysis of the possible reasons to avert the death penalty is reflected in a series of recent verdicts such as Lochan Shrivas vs State of Chhattisgarh (2021) and Bhagchandra vs State of Madhya Pradesh (2021).
  • These reasons might include socio-economic backwardness, mental health, heredity, parenting, socialisation, education, etc.

Background of the humane and reformist framework

  • The special reason: According to Section 354(3) in the Code of Criminal Procedure, while imposing the capital punishment, the judge should specify “the special reasons” for doing so.
  • It was in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980) that the Constitution Bench suggested a humane and reformist framework in the matter.
  • Bachan Singh requires the trial courts not only to examine the gravity of the offence but also the condition and the ‘reformability’ of the accused. 
  • Not unconstitutional: The Court, in Bachan Singh, refused to declare the death penalty as unconstitutional. 
  • It abundantly implied that no person is indubitably ‘irreformable’.
  • It had the effect of practically undoing the death penalty provision, if taken in its letter and spirit.
  • Person-centric approach: This person-centric approach, for its materialisation, needs a different judicial acumen that recognises the convict in her multitudes.

Is the Bachan Singh doctrine followed?

  • The Bachan Singh principle was followed more in its breach than in compliance even by the Supreme Court.
  • In Ravji vs State of Rajasthan (1995), the Supreme Court said that it is the nature of the crime and not the criminal which is germane for deciding the punishment.
  • Several other cases also were decided by ignoring the Bachan Singh doctrine, as noted by the Supreme Court itself in Santhosh Kumar Satishbhushan Bariyar vs State of Maharashtra (2009) and Rajesh Kumar vs State (2011).
  • This egregious judicial error will have to be kept in mind while the Court revisits the issues related to mitigating factors and individual-centered sentencing policy in the Irfan case.
  • Shortcomings of Bachan Sing: Bachan Singh did not, in concrete terms, elaborate on the mitigating factors and the methods to gather them to avert the death penalty.
  • Nor did it explain the issues such as burden of proof and standard of proof in detail.

Issue of misuse and overuse

  • Misuse of sedition provision: The Indian experience shows that whenever the Court tries to dilute the harshness of penal provisions by a balancing approach, instead of striking down the provision, the instrumentalities of the state (including the police, the prosecution and the court) continue to overuse or misuse the provisions.
  • The Supreme Court endorsed the validity of the sedition law (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code) with a rider that it could be invoked only when there is an incitement to violence.
  • But the state seldom acts based on interpretation of the law. 
  •  Many were booked for the charge of sedition since then for mere words, innocent tweets or harmless jokes.

Social Implications

  • Disproportionate effect on the poor: In India, as elsewhere, the poor, rather than the rich, are sent to the gallows.
  • Ineffectiveness of legal assistance: In Williams vs Taylor (2000), the U.S. Supreme Court said that failure of the defence lawyer in highlighting the mitigating factors that could lead to avoidance of capital punishment makes the legal assistance ineffective. 
  • Therefore, it infringes constitutionally guaranteed rights.
  • In the Indian scenario, the legal assistance received by the poor facing serious charges is far from satisfactory.
  • Mitigating factors not placed: And in the matter of sentencing too, the mitigating factors are either not placed before the trial court or not persuaded adequately to convince the trial judge to avoid the death penalty.

What more can be done?

  • Taking empirical lessons from the fate of Bachan Singh, the Supreme Court may have to now ask the more fundamental question posed and negatived in Bachan Singh — the question of the constitutional validity of death penalty.
  • Comprehensive report: The Court, in the instant case, will have to evolve a legal device for procurement of a comprehensive report dealing with the socio-economic and hereditary backgrounds of the accused from experts in the fields of social work, psychiatry, psychology, anthropology, etc.
  • Violation of Article 21: The Court may have to revisit Bachan Singh itself in so far as it refused to declare the death penalty as violative of the right to life envisaged under Article 21 of the Constitution.
  • Across the world, 108 nations have abolished death penalty in law and 144 countries have done so in law or practice, according to the Amnesty Report of 2021.
  • Judicial errors: In the Indian context, where judgmental error is quite frequent and the quality of adjudication is not ensured, what is required is a judicial abolition of death penalty. 

Way Forward

The present matter will have to be referred to a larger Bench, with a view to rectify the foundational omission in Bachan Singh — of not explicitly declaring capital punishment as unconstitutional.

Source – The Hindu

February 2024