Report No. 262
Conclusions and Recommendation
7.1.1 The death penalty does not serve the penological goal of deterrence any more than life imprisonment. Further, life imprisonment under Indian law means imprisonment for the whole of life subject to just remissions which, in many states in cases of serious crimes, are granted only after many years of imprisonment which range from 30-60 years. Gopal Vinayak Godse v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1961 SC 600; Maru Ram v. Union of India, (1981) 1 SCC 107. For remission rules, see for example, Category 6 in Maharashtra's "Guidelines for Premature Release" dated 15.3.2010.
7.1.2 Retribution has an important role to play in punishment. However, it cannot be reduced to vengeance. The notion of "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" has no place in our constitutionally mediated criminal justice system. Capital punishment fails to achieve any constitutionally valid penological goals.
7.1.3 In focusing on death penalty as the ultimate measure of justice to victims, the restorative and rehabilitative aspects of justice are lost sight of. Reliance on the death penalty diverts attention from other problems ailing the criminal justice system such as poor investigation, crime prevention and rights of victims of crime. It is essential that the State establish effective victim compensation schemes to rehabilitate victims of crime.
At the same time, it is also essential that courts use the power granted to them under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 to grant appropriate compensation to victims in suitable cases. The voices of victims and witnesses are often silenced by threats and other coercive techniques employed by powerful accused persons. Hence it is essential that a witness protection scheme also be established. The need for police reforms for better and more effective investigation and prosecution has also been universally felt for some time now and measures regarding the same need to be taken on a priority basis.
7.1.4 In the last decade, the Supreme Court has on numerous occasions expressed concern about arbitrary sentencing in death penalty cases. The Court has noted that it is difficult to distinguish cases where death penalty has been imposed from those where the alternative of life imprisonment has been applied. In the Court's own words "extremely uneven application of Bachan Singh has given rise to a state of uncertainty in capital sentencing law which clearly falls foul of constitutional due process and equality principle".
The Court has also acknowledged erroneous imposition of the death sentence in contravention of Bachan Singh guidelines. Therefore, the constitutional regulation of capital punishment attempted in Bachan Singh has failed to prevent death sentences from being "arbitrarily and freakishly imposed".
7.1.5 There exists no principled method to remove such arbitrariness from capital sentencing. A rigid, standardization or categorization of offences which does not take into account the difference between cases is arbitrary in that it treats different cases on the same footing. Anything less categorical, like the Bachan Singh framework itself, has demonstrably and admittedly failed.
7.1.6 Numerous committee reports as well as judgements of the Supreme Court have recognized that the administration of criminal justice in the country is in deep crisis. Lack of resources, outdated modes of investigation, over-stretched police force, ineffective prosecution, and poor legal aid are some of the problems besetting the system. Death penalty operates within this context and therefore suffers from the same structural and systemic impediments.
The administration of capital punishment thus remains fallible and vulnerable to misapplication. The vagaries of the system also operate disproportionately against the socially and economically marginalized who may lack the resources to effectively advocate their rights within an adversarial criminal justice system.
7.1.7 Clemency powers usually come into play after a judicial conviction and sentencing of an offender. In exercise of these clemency powers, the President and Governor are empowered to scrutinize the record of the case and differ with the judicial verdict on the point of guilt or sentence. Even when they do not so differ, they are empowered to exercise their clemency powers to ameliorate hardship, correct error, or to do complete justice in a case by taking into account factors that are outside and beyond the judicial ken.
They are also empowered to look at fresh evidence which was not placed before the courts. Kehar Singh v. Union of India, (1989) 1 SCC 204 paras 7, 10 and 16. Clemency powers, while exercisable for a wide range of considerations and on protean occasions, also function as the final safeguard against possibility of judicial error or miscarriage of justice.
This casts a heavy responsibility on those wielding this power and necessitates a full application of mind, scrutiny of judicial records, and wide ranging inquiries in adjudicating a clemency petition, especially one from a prisoner under a judicially confirmed death sentence who is on the very verge of execution. Further, the Supreme Court in Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India, (2014) 3 SCC 1, at paras 55-56, has recorded various relevant considerations which are gone into by the Home Ministry while deciding mercy petitions.
7.1.8 The exercise of mercy powers under Article 72 and 161 have failed in acting as the final safeguard against miscarriage of justice in the imposition of the death sentence. The Supreme Court has repeatedly pointed out gaps and illegalities in how the executive has discharged its mercy powers. When even exercise of mercy powers is sometimes vitiated by gross procedural violations and non-application of mind, capital punishment becomes indefensible.
7.1.9 Safeguards in the law have failed in providing a constitutionally secure environment for administration of this irrevocable punishment. The Courts' attempts to constitutionally discipline the execution of the death sentence has not always borne fruit.
7.1.10 Death row prisoners continue to face long delays in trials, appeals and thereafter in executive clemency. During this time, the prisoner on death row suffers from extreme agony, anxiety and debilitating fear arising out of an imminent yet uncertain execution. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that an amalgam of such unique circumstances produces physical and psychological conditions of near-torture for the death row convict. Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India, (2014) 3 SCC 1, at para 61.
Further, the death row phenomenon is compounded by the degrading and oppressive effects of conditions of imprisonment imposed on the convict, including solitary confinement, and the prevailing harsh prison conditions. The death row phenomenon has become an unfortunate and distinctive feature of the death penalty apparatus in India. Further, infliction of additional, unwarranted and judicially unsanctioned suffering on death sentence prisoners, breaches the Article 21 barrier against degrading and excessive punishment.
7.1.11 In retaining and practicing the death penalty, India forms part of a small and ever dwindling group of nations. That 140 countries are now abolitionist in law or in practice, demonstrates that evolving standards of human dignity and decency do not support the death penalty. The international trend towards successful and sustained abolition also confirms that retaining the death penalty is not a requirement for effectively responding to insurgency, terror or violent crime.