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Procedural gaps in death penalty sentencing

  • IASbaba
  • June 18, 2022
  • 0
Indian Polity & Constitution
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Context: Recently, the Supreme Court, in Manoj & others v. State of MP, embarked on a significant attempt to reform the administration of the death penalty.

Background

  • There has long been a judicial crisis in death penalty sentencing on account of unprincipled sentencing, arbitrariness and worrying levels of subjectivity.
  • The crisis has been acknowledged by the Supreme Court, the Law Commission of India, research scholars and civil society groups.
  • At the heart of this concern is the fact that death penalty sentencing has been, by and large, crime-centric.

Bachan Singh (1980)

  • The ruling of the five-judge bench in this case laid down a framework to be followed by judges who have to choose between life imprisonment and death sentence.
  • This framework made it binding for the sentencing judges to take into account factors relating to both the crime and accused and assign them appropriate weight.
  • Judges couldn’t decide to impose the death penalty only on the basis of the crime.
  • The background of the accused, the personal circumstances, mental health and age were considerations a sentencing judge had to account for.
  • Judges were required to weigh mitigating and aggravating factors to ascertain if a case was fit for the death sentence and also determine if the option of life imprisonment was unquestionably foreclosed.
  • There is confusion across all levels of the judiciary on the requirements of this framework and its implementation.
  • An important reason for the breakdown is that factors relating to the crime — the nature of the crime and its brutality — are often dominant considerations, and there is barely any consideration of mitigating factors
  • A vast majority of India’s death row prisoners are extremely poor and often do not receive competent legal representation.
  • Thus in the last four decades Bachan Singh framework has not been implemented in letter and spirit

The significance Manoj & others v. State of MP

  • It takes the lax implemetation of Bachan Singh judgment problem head-on.
  • The judgment is clear that certain procedural thresholds must be met for sentencing to be fair and explicitly rejects the idea that death sentences can be determined solely on crime-based considerations

Key points

  • Commitment to recognising reformation as integral to the Indian criminal justice system, especially death penalty sentencing
  • It asks the state and sentencing judges to establish that there is no probability of reformation of the accused.
  • It recognises that aspects of the accused’s life, both pre-offence and post-offence in prison, are relevant.
  • As practical steps in this process, the judgment asks courts to call for reports from the probation officer as well as prison and independent mental health experts.
  • The state too must present material that speaks to a wide range of factors. The right of the accused to present mitigating factors and rebut the state, if necessary, is also recognised.

Challenges

  • The attempts to bring about procedural coherence and integrity will face significant challenges in the trial courts and the high courts it is far from certain that these reforms will be meaningfully implemented in those forums.
  • The Supreme Court will have to provide basis for consideration of the above mentioned factors, in the absence of such foundations, death penalty sentencing will continue to be unprincipled and sentencing judges are not going to understand the need for this wide range of sentencing information.

All our actions are a result of a complex web of biological, psychological, and social factors and that understanding has a very significant bearing on discussions on criminality and punishment including death penalty.

Source: Indian Express

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