lawyers in India

Death Sentence in India - IPC - Death penalty

Written by: Satish Kumar - Law Student
Constitutional Lawyers in India
Legal Service
  • Death penalty has been a mode of punishment since time immemorial. The arguments for and against has not changed much over the years. At this point of time when the issue [whether capital punishment must be abolished or not] is still raging, it will be appropriate to remind ourselves as to how the legislatures and the apex Court have dealt with this issue every time it has come up before them.

    Death Sentence Under Different Statutes

    Indian Criminal jurisprudence is based on a combination of deterrent and reformative theories of punishment. While the punishments are to be imposed to create deter amongst the offenders, the offenders are also to be given opportunity for reformation. The courts while imposing death sentence has to record its special reasons as to why the court came to the conclusion.

    Capital Punishment is laid down as a penalty in several legislative Acts, such as:

    Indian Penal Code, 1860
    Under the IPC eleven offences are punishable by death. For ex-Murder, Abetment of suicide by a minor or insane person, Dacoity with murder etc.

    Army Act, 1950, the Air Force Act, 1950 and the Navy Act 1956

    A death sentence may also be imposed for a number of offences committed by members of the armed forces.

    The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987

    Prescribes punishment by death for any person who either directly or indirectly abets the commission of sati (immolation of a widow).

    The Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotopic Substances (Amendment) Act, 1988 Introduced the death penalty as a punishment for financing, or engaging in the production, manufacture or sale of narcotics or psychotopic substance of specified quantities (e.g. opium 10 kgs, cocaine 500 gms) after previous convictions.

    The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,1989

     Introduced the death penalty for fabricating of providing false evidence that results in the conviction and execution of an innocent member of a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe.

    Attempts to Abolish the Death Penalty

    Several legislative attempts to abolish the death penalty in India have failed. Before Independence a private Bill was introduced in the 1931 Legislative Assembly to abolish the death penalty for penal code offences. The British Home Secretary at the time however rejected the motion.

    The Government of independent India rejected a similar Bill introduced in the first Lok Sabha . Efforts were also made in Rajya Sabha to move resolution for abolition of death sentence in 1958 and 1962 but were withdrawn after some debate.

    The Law Commission in its Report presented to the Government in 1967 and to the Lok Sabha in 1971 concluded that the death penalty should be retained and that the executive (President) should continue to possess powers of mercy.

    Procedure When Death sentence is Imposed

    Special Reasons
    The court has to record special reasons for imposing death sentence.

    Confirmation by High Court
    Court of session after passing a death sentence shall submit the proceedings to the High Court, and the sentence shall not be executed unless it is confirmed by the High Court. The court passing the sentence shall then commit the convicted person to jail custody under a warrant.

    Enquiry and Additional Evidence
    The High Court while dealing with confirmation may order further inquiry be made into, or additional evidence taken upon, any point bearing upon, any point bearing upon the guilty or innocence of the convicted person.

    No order for confirmation
    No order for confirmation shall be made until the period allowed for preferring an appeal has expired, or if any appeal is presented within such period, until such appeal is disposed of.

    In every case so submitted, the confirmation of the sentence, or any new sentence or order passed by the High Court, shall when such court consists of two or more judges , be made, passed and signed by at least two of them.

    Copy of Order Sent to Court of Session

    In cases submitted by the court of session to the High Court for the confirmation of a sentence of death, the proper officer of the High Court shall ,without delay, after the order of confirmation or other order has been made by the High Court, send a copy of the order under the seal of the High Court and attested with his official signature, to the court of session.

    Where a person is sentenced to death and an appeal from its judgment lies the execution of the sentence will be postponed until the period allowed for preferring such appeal has expired, or if an appeal is preferred within that period, until such appeal is disposed of.

    Postponement of Death Sentence on Pregnant Woman

    If a woman sentenced to death is found to be pregnant, the High Court shall order the execution of the sentence to be postponed and may, if it thinks fit, commute the sentence to imprisonment for life.

    Mode of Execution

    The issue regarding the constitutionality of hanging as a mode of execution came up before the Supreme Court in Deena v. Union of India {[1993] 4 SCC 645} , though the court asserted that it was a judicial function to probe into the reasonableness of a mode of punishment ,it refused to hold the mode of hanging as being violative of Article 21 of the constitution.

    This issue was once again raised in Shashi Nayar {1992 SCC [CRI] 24] the court held that since the issue had already been considered in Deena, there was no good reason to take a different view.

    Another issue which deserves attention is public hanging as a mode of execution. The issue of public hanging came to the Supreme Court through a writ petition Attorney General v. Lachma Devi {1989 SCC [CRI] 413} in this petition the order of Rajasthan High Court regarding the execution of the petitioner by public hanging under the relevant rules of Jail manual. The S.C. held that public hanging even if permitted under the rules would violate Article 21 of the Constitution.

    Legality of Death Sentence

    In the case of Jagmohan V/s State of U.P. {1973 SCC [CRI] 169}the question of constitutional validity of death punishment was challenged before the SC, it was argued that the right to live was basic to freedom guranteed under Article 19 of the constitution . The S.C. rejected the contention and held that death sentence cannot be regarded as unreasonable per se or not in the public interest and hence could not be said to be violative of Article 19 of the constitution.

    When can Death Sentence be granted

    As have been stated earlier, after Cr.P.C. , 1973, death sentence is the exception while life imprisonment is the rule. Therefore, by virtue of section 354(3) of CR.P.C., it can be said that death sentence be inflicted in special cases only. The apex court modified this terminology in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab {AIR 1980 SC 898 } and observed- " A real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life postulates resistance to taking a life through law's instrumentality. That ought to be done save in the rarest of rare cases when the alternative option is unquestionably foreclosed..""

    Rarest of rare cases
    To decide whether a case falls under the category of rarest of rare case or not was completely left upon the court's discretion. However the apex court laid down a few principles which were to be kept in mind while deciding the question of sentence. One of the very important principles is regarding aggravating and mitigating circumstances. It has been the view of the court that while deciding the question of sentence, a balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances in that particular case has to be drawn. Full weightage should be given to the mitigating circumstances and even after that if the court feels that justice will not be done if any punishment less than the death sentence is awarded, then and then only death sentence should be imposed.

    Again in Machhi singh vs. State of Punjab { [1983] 3 SCC 470 }the court laid down:- " In order to apply these guidelines inter alia the following questions maybe asked and answered: -
    (a). Is there something uncommon about the crime which renders sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence?
    (b). Are there circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favor of the offenders?"

    The SC has also discussed such aggravating and mitigating circumstances in various cases. These circumstances include: -
    Aggravating Circumstances
    # Murder committed in an extremely brutal , grotesque, diabolical , revolting or dastardly manner so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of the community.
    # Murder- for a motive which evinces total depravity and meanness.
    # Murder of a Scheduled cast or Scheduled tribe- arousing social wrath ( npt for personal reasons).
    # Bride burning/ Dowry death.
    # Murderer in a dominating position , position of trust or in course of betrayal of the motherland.
    # Where it is enormous in proportion.
    # Victim- innocent child, helpless woman, old/infirm person, public figure generally loved and respected by the community.

    Mitigating Circumstances

    The court in its discretion, may take into consideration, the following circumstances as mitigating, on the basis of which the lesser punishment can be imposed:
    1. That the offence was committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional distribution;
    2. If the accused is young or old, he shall not be sentenced to death;
    3. The probability that the accused would not commit criminal acts of violence as would constitute a continuing threat to society;
    4. The probability that the accused can be reformed and rehabilitated ;The state shall by evidence prove that the accused does not satisfy the conditions (3) and (4) above;
    5. That in the facts and circumstances of the case, the accused believed that he was morally justified in committing the offence;
    6. That the accused acted under the duress of domination of another person;
    7. That the condition of the accused showed that he was mentally defective and that the said defect impaired his capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.

    Conviction of a minor

    The ordinary sentencing applicable to adults will no longer be applicable in the case of juveniles. The Juvenile Justice Act defines the term juvenile as a boy who has not attained the age of 16 years, or a girl who has not attained the age of 18 years. As per sec. 22 of the said Act, no delinquent juvenile shall be sentenced to death?.

    Conviction of A Pregnant woman

    Section-416 of Cr.pc. provides if a woman sentenced to death is found to be pregnant, the High court shall order the execution of the sentence to be postponed and may, if it thinks fit, commute the sentence to imprisonment for life.

    Lesser Sentence To Co- Accused

    In cases where there are more than one accused, and murder has been committed by several persons, under section 34 of IPC, the act done by one will be considered to be acts done by all. So if a lesser sentence of life imprisonment is awarded to one accused, then the co-accused should also generally be given the same sentence, unless it can be established that the role of any one of them in the commission of the crime is more that of others.

    Delay in execution of the death sentence

    Delay in execution of death sentence is a factor which may be taken into consideration for commuting the sentence of death to life imprisonment.
    If upon taking an overall view of all the circumstances and taking in to account the answers to the question posed by way of the test of rarest of rare cases, the circumstances of the case are such that death penalty is warranted, the court would proceed to do so.

    Judicial Discretion
    The ultimate discretion to decide whether death sentence is to be imposed or not , have been vested in the court. There is a debate going on about the extent of this judicial discretion.

    A brief analysis of the cases decided by the SC. Regarding the question of death sentence over last 25 years, will reveal how
    differing/dithering the judgments have been.

    In the case of Mohd. Chaman {2000 SOL CASE NO 705 } , on the question of extent of judicial discretion, the court observed :-
    " Such standardization is well nigh impossible . Firstly degree of culpability cannot be measured in any case. Secondly criminal cases canno tbe categorized there being infinite , unpredictable and unforeseeable variations . Thirdly in such categorization, the sentencing procedure will cease to be judicial . And fourthly , such standardization or sentencing discretion is policy matter belonging to the legislature beyond the courts functions"

    International Scenario
    As of June 2004, a total of 118 countries (including Canada, Mexico, Australia, Russia, South American nations and most European nations) have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Of these, 80 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, fifteen countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes (such as wartime crimes) and 23 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice, i.e., they retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past ten years or more and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions.

    In India the present position regarding death sentence is quite a balanced one. But the wide judicial discretion given to the court has resulted into enormously varying judgment, which does not potray a good picture of the justice delivery system. What is needed to be done is that the principle laid down in cases like Bachan Singh or Machhi Singh have to be strictly complied with, so that the person convicted for offence of similar nature are awarded punishment of identical degree.

    The author can be reached at: [email protected] / Print This Article

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