“A trial Judge can take his time and sentence the convict after giving adequate opportunity for the prosecution as well as for the defence to produce material as postulated in Bachan Singh so that the possibility of awarding life sentence is open to the Trial Judge as against the death sentence.”
The Supreme Court on Wednesday commuted death sentence awarded to a man convicted for rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl and sentenced him to life imprisonment without release from custody for the rest of his normal life.
The judgment (Rajendra Pralhadrao Wasnik vs. State of Maharashtra) delivered by Justice Madan B. Lokur for the bench also comprising Justice S. Abdul Nazeer and Justice Deepak Gupta, discusses pertinent issues on ‘sentencing’.
Courts are ill-equipped to form an objective opinion about death penalty
Justice Lokur begins his judgment sharing the ‘conflicting views’ on death sentence jurisprudence. He observed that there is no conclusive study as to whether death sentence has a deterrent effect or whether retribution by itself satisfies society.
The court also said that there were views that punishment for a crime must be looked at with a more humanitarian lens and the causes for driving a person to commit a heinous crime must be explored and that it must be determined whether it is possible to reform, rehabilitate and socially reintegrate into society even a hardened criminal along with those representing the victims of the crime.
“These conflicting views make it very difficult for courts to take a decision and without expert evidence on the subject, courts are ill-equipped to form an objective opinion,” the court observed.
Ordinarily death sentence should not be awarded in a conviction based on circumstantial evidence
The court, agreed with the contention taken on behalf of the convict that ordinarily death sentence should not be awarded in a conviction based on circumstantial evidence.
The bench, referring to multiple decisions, on this aspect, said: “Ordinarily, it would not be advisable to award capital punishment in a case of circumstantial evidence. But there is no hard and fast rule that death sentence should not be awarded in a case of circumstantial evidence. The precautions that must be taken by all the courts in cases of circumstantial evidence is this: if the court has some doubt, on the circumstantial evidence on record, that the accused might not have committed the offence, then a case for acquittal would be made out; if the court has no doubt, on the circumstantial evidence, that the accused is guilty, then of course a conviction must follow. If the court is inclined to award the death penalty then there must be some exceptional circumstances warranting the imposition of the extreme penalty. Even in such cases, the court must follow the dictum laid down in Bachan Singh that it is not only the crime, but also the criminal that must be kept in mind and any alternative option of punishment is unquestionably foreclosed. The reason for the second precaution is that the death sentence, upon execution, is irrevocable and irretrievable.”
Trial Judge Can Take His Time And Sentence The Convict
The court observed that probability (not possibility or improbability or impossibility) that a convict can be reformed and rehabilitated in society must be seriously and earnestly considered by the trial court before awarding death sentence. This, the court said, can be gathered from material about his conduct in jail, his conduct outside jail if he has been on bail for some time, medical evidence about his mental make-up, and contact with his family and so on.
Here the court makes an interesting observation that a trial judge can take his time and sentence the convict after giving adequate opportunity for the prosecution as well as for the defence to produce material as postulated in Bachan Singh so that the possibility of awarding life sentence is open to the trial judge as against the death sentence.
It said: “It is quite obvious that the period between the date of conviction and the date of awarding sentence would be quite prolonged to enable the parties to gather and lead evidence which could assist the Trial Court in taking an informed decision on the sentence. But, there is no hurry in this regard, since in any case the convict will be in custody for a fairly long time serving out at least a life sentence.”
Criminals Also Entitled To A Life Of Dignity
The bench further observed that the process of rehabilitation is also not a simple one since it involves social reintegration of the convict into society. It said: “Therefore, we should not forget that the criminal, however ruthless he might be, is nevertheless a human being and is entitled to a life of dignity notwithstanding his crime. Therefore, it is for the prosecution and the courts to determine whether such a person, notwithstanding his crime, can be reformed and rehabilitated. To obtain and analyse this information is certainly not an easy task but must nevertheless be undertaken. Of course, notwithstanding any information made available and its analysis by experts coupled with the evidence on record, there could be instances where the social re-integration of the convict may not be possible. If that should happen, the option of a long duration of imprisonment is permissible.”