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Findings of the Research on Death Sentences:

  • The shock and impact of a crime on the collective conscience of society was a major reason cited by trial courts in Delhi while imposing death sentence on convicts.
  • Out of the 43 cases in Delhi in which death sentence was handed down between 2000 and 2015, trial courts invoked the impact of the crime on society’s collective conscience in 31 cases – 72% as grounds to send convicts to death row.

Supreme Court: Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab (1980)

  • The Supreme Court in its 1980 judgment in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, where a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court was called upon to decide the constitutional validity of the capital punishment, had laid down the framework for sentencing to death.
  • The Supreme court had made it very clear that Capital punishment in India can be given only in rarest of rare cases.
  • It required the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances relating to both the circumstances of the offence and the offender, to decide whether a person should be sentenced to death or given life imprisonment.
  • According to the Bachan Singh judgment, for a case to be eligible for the death sentence, the aggravating circumstances must outweigh the mitigating circumstances.
  • If the alternative punishment of life imprisonment can be “unquestionably foreclosed”, Only then can death penalty be imposed.
  • The Bachan Singh judgement recognized the age of the accused as a relevant mitigating circumstance.
  • While stating that honour killings fall within the “rarest of the rare” category, Court has recommended the death penalty be extended to those found guilty of committing “honour killings”, which deserve to be a capital crime.
  • The Supreme Court also recommended death sentences to be imposed on police officials who commit police brutality in the form of encounter killings.

Bringing up Collective conscience of society

  • ‘Collective conscience of society’ as a ground to justify death penalty was first used by the Supreme Court in the 1983 judgment of Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab.
  • In that case, the court held that when “collective conscience of society is shocked, it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty”.
  • ‘Collective Conscience of Society’ was also used in 2005 judgment in the Parliament attack case in which it awarded capital punishment to convict, Afzal Guru and 2017 judgment of the Supreme Court in the December 2012 Delhi gang rape case of Mukesh v. State of NCT of Delhi.

What is Collective Conscience of Society?

  • Collective consciousness (sometimes collective conscience or conscious) is a fundamental sociological concept that refers to the set of shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge that are common to a social group or society.
  • The collective consciousness informs our sense of belonging and identity, and our behavior.
  • In general, it does not refer to the specifically moral conscience, but to a shared understanding of social norms.
  • However, some experts say “Collective Conscience of Society”’ is an amorphous term, and is not possible to judicially determine what it means.

Issues with Death Sentencing in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi

  • As per the report, no mitigating circumstances were mentioned in more 40% of death penalty cases in the three states.
  • 37% of the prisoners sentenced to death in the three states were between 18-25 years of age.
  • Trial courts in the three states discussed life imprisonment as an alternative only in 26.6% cases before imposing death penalty. In all cases where it was discussed as an alternative, it was dismissed on the ground of brutality of the crime.
  • More than 40% cases saw sentencing within 24 hours of the conviction.

J.S. Verma Committee

J.S. Verma Committee said that capital punishment is a regressive step and may not provide deterrence. The committee recommended the life sentence for the most grievous of crimes.

Capital Punishment and Crimes J S Verma Committee

-Source: Hindustan Times

February 2024