In a significant development, the Calcutta High Court division bench on 6
May 2023, overturned the death sentences that had been previously handed down
by a sessions court to three of the six individuals convicted for the brutal
gang rape and murder of a 20-year-old college student in Kamduni village, North
24 Parganas district, back in 2013.
This heinous crime had sparked widespread outrage throughout West Bengal as it
bore unsettling similarities to the infamous Nirbhaya incident that occurred
in Delhi in 2012. The victim, who was a second-year undergraduate student at
the time, was abducted, subjected to sexual assault by multiple perpetrators,
and tragically lost her life on June 7th of that year.
It's worth noting that these were among the first death sentences to be
imposed in connection with a rape case within West Bengal subsequent to
President Pranab Mukherjee sanctioning the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance
2013 following the Nirbhaya incident.
The division bench released the three additional convicts, who had already
served their 10-year prison sentences, by requiring them to pay a bail bond
of ₹10,000 each.
In January 2016, additional district and sessions judge Sanchita Sarkar
pronounced these sentences, describing the Kamduni crime as an exceptionally
rare and heinous act.
The bench, consisting of Justice Joymalya Bagchi and Justice Ajay Kumar Gupta,
commuted the death sentences of two convicted persons to life imprisonment.
Additionally, they acquitted the third convict, who was also facing a death
sentence. The decision was made based on the defence lawyer's argument of
The judges expressed their belief that the trial court made an error in
imposing the death penalty based solely on the seriousness of the offense.
The state has not succeeded in proving conspiracy and prior planning beyond a
reasonable doubt. Additionally, they have not presented evidence to counter
the possibility of reform and rehabilitation.
The judges further stated that the appellants have exhibited satisfactory
behaviour while in the correctional home. Additionally, supporting evidence
suggests a strong likelihood of their reformation and rehabilitation.
Therefore, the judges believed that an alternate punishment of life
imprisonment for the remainder of their natural lives is a more compassionate
solution that adequately addresses society's concerns regarding potential
After the judgment of the Calcutta High Court, a media trial playing on emotions
of the people has begun in some parts of the country questioning the verdict of
the division bench of the Calcutta High Court and role of the investigating
agency in the Kamduni gang rape and murder case and a scenario is being
portrayed as if none of the accused persons was arrested by police, the case was
not properly investigated, all the accused persons have been acquitted by the
court and none of them was punished.
They apparently support the capital punishment awarded by the sessions court to
three of the convicts out of the six accused persons convicted in this case,
which the Division Bench of the High Court in its wisdom turned into life
sentence till death for the two accused persons who were awarded capital
punishment, and acquitted the third accused person. This despite the fact that
capital punishment though not illegal in India has been abolished in many
countries of the world including some developed countries.
The question is: Should the Judges be swayed by public opinion and emotion
and media pressure in deciding the fate of a case?
The Supreme Court, in its ruling on Thursday, 19 January 2023, made it clear
that a judge must base their decision solely on the evidence presented by
the prosecution and the law. Emotions should not influence their judgment when
convicting an accused individual.
"The court cannot base a conviction on personal feelings or whims. It is
obligated to assess the evidence presented before it. If the investigating
agency fails to perform its duties diligently or if the prosecution lacks
strength, the court's hands are tied," explained Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul,
who presided over the bench.
The bench, including Justices AS Oka and BV Nagarathna, emphasized that they
cannot assume the role of a prosecutor or defence counsel. Instead, their goal
is to ensure fairness by creating a level playing field where both sides can
contribute to the court's pursuit of justice.
During the consideration of appeals related to a caste massacre in Bihar in
1998, the bench made remarks. The incident, which took place in Bhojpur,
resulted in the loss of 10 lives. Extremists from Ranveer Sena, a militia
composed of upper caste groups, were involved and targeted victims from
Scheduled Caste and other lower castes. In 2010, three accused individuals
were sentenced to death by a trial court, but three years later, the Patna
high court ordered their acquittal.
Senior counsel Colin Gonsalves, advocating for the informant in the case,
expressed his concern later about the lack of justice delivered by Bihar
courts in caste massacre cases involving victims from lower castes. He
highlighted the repeated incidents of massacres targeting Dalit communities
in Bihar and the subsequent acquittals. Gonsalves emphasized the urgent need
for action to address this issue.
"That's why we must improve and reinforce the legal aid system," responded
the bench, referencing their previous ruling to establish a committee
consisting of three members, with the head being the member secretary�an
officer from Maharashtra State Legal Services Authority. The committee's
purpose was to ensure that all victims affected by the 1992 Mumbai communal
riots receive proper compensation.
Gonsalves raised an issue, stating that members of the Dalit community
often do not receive proper legal representation.
"We've been working on improving the legal aid system, as that's an important
aspect. However, there are other issues to consider as well. For example, if
a party hires their own counsel, we can't force them to accept a legal aid
attorney. Additionally, if the lawyer doesn't perform their duties
effectively, it raises concerns about inadequate or improper representation...
So, at times we need to strengthen the prosecution side and other times we
need to focus on strengthening the defence. Our goal is to protect and
enhance the overall justice system." replied the bench.
Further, in a December 2015 judgment, the Supreme Court emphasized that
judges should not let emotions and sentiments influence their verdicts,
regardless of the severity or gruesomeness of the crime.
In a high-profile case, the highest court acquitted a man who had been charged
with his wife's murder during their honeymoon. The Court ruled that the
prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence of the wife's cause of
death. The victim, from a royal family, and whose father served as a judge in
Bihar's subordinate judiciary, had drawn significant media attention.
The Patna High Court's confirmation of a 10-year rigorous imprisonment
sentence for Rajiv Singh on charges of dowry death (IPC Section 304B) has been
reversed by the Supreme Court. Justices V Gopala Gowda and Amitava Roy
emphasized that while the incident is undoubtedly distressing, judicial
decisions must be based on established legal principles rather than emotional
or sentimental reactions.
Researches show clearly the influence of public opinion on Courts. It is a
remarkable achievement for public opinion to have the power to sway a fast-track
court in a country where justice is often delayed or denied. In this case,
public opinion holds more influence than the rule of law itself. Surprisingly,
even the Court has been impacted by public sentiment. Justice Dipak Misra, in
his judgment on the Nirbhaya Case, eloquently states: " Gist-The appellants were
driven by an insatiable and debased lust, completely surrendering to their
carnal desires and indulging in bestial acts that can only elicit shock and
dismay from society as a whole. This emphasizes the pervasiveness of this crime
and its destructive impact on civilized society".
To what extent does public opinion influence court decisions, and is this
desirable? The Supreme Court ruling in Santosh Kumar Satishbhushan Bariyar v.
Maharashtra highlighted the significant role of public opinion in sentencing.
It emphasized that the court should declare public opinion as irrelevant when
determining punishment due to the dominance of media trials and political
considerations surrounding death sentences. However, a contradictory viewpoint
was presented in Gurvail Singh v. Punjab, where the Supreme Court considered
public opinion as a relevant factor influencing decisions.
While media attention can sometimes be crucial in preventing miscarriages of
justice and expediting legal proceedings, it's important to recognize that
reliance on public opinion should not overshadow the need for evidence-based
judgments and sentencing. Cases such as Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattu, and
Ruchika Girhotra highlight the positive impact of media activism and public
pressure. However, it is also crucial to ensure that arrests are based on solid
evidence to avoid unjustly targeting innocent individuals simply to appease
Consequences of Undue Pressure of Media and Public Opinion on Police, Courts
It is crucial for judges to adhere to the principles of judicial independence
and base their decisions on legal statutes, presented case facts, and
established legal precedents. They should not be swayed by media influence or
public sentiment. Upholding this principle is essential for maintaining a fair
and equitable legal system, as it ensures that judges are insulated from
external forces such as public opinion, media coverage, or emotional reactions
from the public.
This commitment is rooted in several essential principles:
Judges have a crucial responsibility as impartial and
unbiased interpreters of the law. It is essential that their decision-making
remains unaffected by media influence or public emotions in order to uphold
this imperative impartiality.
Rule of Law:
The concept of the rule of law is highly significant in any
democratic society. It emphasizes that legal decisions should be based on
established legal principles rather than being influenced by the changing
whims of the public.
Protection of Minority Rights:
Safeguarding the rights of individuals
and minority groups should be of utmost importance to the legal system. This
duty remains even when these rights may not align with popular opinion. It is
crucial that judges remain impartial and unaffected by public emotions in
order to ensure fair treatment for all, especially minority populations.
Consistency and Predictability:
Consistency and predictability are
crucial elements of a fair legal system. It is essential for legal decisions
to be consistent and predictable, regardless of public emotions. Making
decisions based on public sentiments can lead to inconsistencies in how the
law is applied, which ultimately undermines public trust in the judiciary.
Conviction of innocent:
One potential consequence of excessive public
pressure on the police to solve a case, especially when there are no clear
leads or evidence, is the increased risk of wrongly arresting and thereafter
convicting an innocent person. In order to appease public demand and avoid
scrutiny, law enforcement may feel compelled to make an arrest even if it
means sacrificing justice for the sake of appearances. This can have
devastating consequences for individuals who become victims of a flawed and
Pressure on Judiciary:
The judicial system might face challenges when
public sentiment and street protests overwhelmingly support capital
punishment. In such cases, there is a concern that judges may succumb to
pressure and convict individuals even in the absence of substantial evidence.
This could potentially lead to the conviction of innocent people who are
unrelated to the case at hand. Consequently, this would result in courts being
controlled by public opinion and media influence, raising doubts about the
fairness and integrity of justice delivery systems.
Effect on Independence of Judiciary:
The impact on the independence of
the judiciary must be considered. It is imperative that courts are not
influenced solely by media opinions and public emotions. If judges make biased
decisions under such pressure, it could lead to innocent individuals being
wrongly convicted while guilty parties evade justice.
However, it is essential to acknowledge that judges do not exist in a vacuum.
They are aware of the prevailing public sentiment and media coverage that
often surrounds a case. Nevertheless, what emerges as crucial is the training
judges receive to consciously disregard these external influences and make
rulings firmly grounded in the law and well-established legal principles.
It is crucial for judges to make decisions based on objective analysis rather
than public sentiments or media influence. Allowing external emotions or
coverage to sway judicial rulings would undermine the integrity of the legal
system and increase the risk of wrongful convictions and unfair punishments.
Therefore, it is imperative that the legal system ensures that judges are
protected from such external pressures, thereby upholding principles of
fairness, justice, and the rule of law.