Death sentence cannot be imposed except in the rarest of rare cases. It is not just the crime which the Court is to take into consideration, but also the criminal, the state of his mind, his socio-economic background and so on. Awarding death sentence is an exception, and life imprisonment is the rule. Before imposing the extreme penalty of death sentence, the Court would have to satisfy itself that the death sentence is imperative, as otherwise, the convict would be a threat to society, and that there is no possibility of reform or rehabilitation of the convict, after giving latter an effective, meaningful, real opportunity of hearing on question of sentence, by producing materials.
In one of the case before the Supreme Court bench, the petitioner-convict was given a death sentence imposed under Section 302 IPC by the trial court for killing a minor girl after raping her. The conviction of the petitioner is based on circumstantial evidence and the alleged extra-judicial confession made by him to the police in the course of the investigation, on the basis of which certain recoveries were made. The trial court proceeded on the basis of the submission of the public prosecutor that the charges had been proved beyond reasonable doubt. The trial court found that the crime committed was barbarous. Even the HC upheld the death penalty.
When the matter came up for hearing before the Apex Court, the bench, after perusing the trial court order, said that there can be no doubt that rape and murder of a minor girl shocks the conscience, and is barbaric. There is, however, no evidence to support the finding that the murder was pre-meditated. The trial court did not make any attempt to elicit materials relevant to the imposition of death sentence. Moreover, the trial court has not considered whether the crime is rarest of rare crimes as mandated by the Supreme Court in Bachan Singh’s case. In deciding whether a case falls within the category of the rarest of rare, the brutality or the gruesome or heinous nature of the crime is not the sole criterion, but also the criminal, the state of his mind, his socio-economic background and so on. Before imposing death sentence, the court has to satisfy itself that the sentence is imperative, the bench noted.
It said that in the present case, the mental health of the petitioner-convict at the time of execution must be taken into consideration. The medical report says that the petitioner is not mentally sound. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to affirm death sentence awarded to the convict. Opportunity should have been given to him to bring on record mitigating circumstances for reduction of the sentence and a balance struck between the aggravating and the mitigating circumstance. Special reasons have to be recorded before imposing death sentence in rarest of rare cases as mandated under CrPC. Besides, there is no forensic evidence against the petitioner. There is also no material to establish that the petitioner was incapable of being reformed, the bench pointed out.
Citing the SC judgment in Lehna’s case and Shatrughan Chauhan’s case, the bench said that the court held that mental illness is one of the supervening circumstances in commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment. There can be no doubt that the crime is abhorrent, but it is doubtful as to whether the crime committed by the petitioner can be termed as “rarest of the rare”, the bench observed.
The bench concluded that mental illness is a relevant factor which warrants commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment. Even though life imprisonment means imprisonment for entire life, convicts are often granted reprieve /or remission of sentence after imprisonment of not less than 14 years. “In this case, considering heinous, revolting, abhorrent and despicable nature of crime committed by petitioner, we feel that petitioner should undergo imprisonment for life, till his natural death and no remission of sentence be granted to him”, bench noted.
Bench disposed of the case by commuting the death sentence in this case to life imprisonment, till his natural death, without reprieve or remission.