In a judgment rendered on Wednesday, the Patna High Court acquitted a death-row prisoner, setting aside conviction for murder.
The bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar iterated that the quality and strength of the evidence and the case of the prosecution not only have a bearing on the decision of conviction or acquittal but also very much on the quantum of sentencing- "
Residual doubt becomes a factor for commuting sentence, especially where evidence is purely circumstantial. Judicial approach on the death penalty ought to be cautious, circumspect and careful more so because the decision is permanent and irreversible"
The bench stated that the Trial Court has ascribed the fact of the victim is an unmarried woman who was taken "advantage" of as an aggravating factor which is a fact that has neither been proved nor alleged in the case- "Such a stance reflects the paternalistic attitude of society towards women, who are always considered as a helpless victim. The Court must be mindful of this"
"The Court has also laid great emphasis on the collective consciousness of society and a call for maximum punishment as a legal remedy where vicious and brutal crimes are committed against women. The Court also seems to be swayed by the fact that the victims are women thereby meriting greater reparations for the crime, however, in this case, the alleged reason of the crime was with respect to a property dispute and not necessarily related to the fact that they were women. The Court has failed to realise that the courts are not oracles of public opinion and the role of the courts is not to soothe public sentiment. Courts have to exercise restraint and first ensure that individual rights guaranteed by the constitution are kept at a higher pedestal than public opinion", said the bench.
The division bench was hearing the Death Reference for confirmation of such sentence, where allegedly in the night intervening 23rd-24th June 2015, accused Niranjan @ Alakhdeo Kumar (hereinafter referred to as Niranjan) and accused Birendra Kumar (hereinafter referred to as Birendra) murdered Smt. Rekha Devi and her two daughters, namely, Ms. Komal Kumari and Ms. Anshu Kumari. As such both of them were charged for committing offences under Section 302/34 of the Indian Penal Code. The Trial Court, vide judgment dated 18th January 2018 found the Prosecution not to have established its case against accused Birendra and as such acquitted him. But, however, found sufficient evidence, though not direct but circumstantial, against accused Niranjan and convicted him for committing an offence punishable under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. Considering the gravity of the crime, accused Niranjan was awarded sentence of death, to be hanged by the neck till death, along with a fine of Rs.20,000/-, in default thereof, to undergo simple imprisonment for a period of one month.
The bench noted that the trial court had, stating that the principles laid down by the SC in the 2017 Nirbhaya case [Mukesh v. NCT] were guiding the decision on quantum sentence for the Court, went on to consider mitigating and aggravating circumstances that weighed in the case. It found the following facts as aggravating circumstances for this case: (1) After the death of the husband of Rekha Devi, the convict took advantage of her loneliness and started living in her house; (2) While living with the widow, he assaulted and tortured her to get her property transferred in his name; (3) On failure of his attempt to get the property transferred, he committed the brutal act of murdering the three helpless family members and; (4) That the gruesome nature of the murder of all three victims, with the total number of 10, 27 and 16 incision wounds being found on the bodies of the deceased, showing the brazenness and coldness with which, the acts were committed. This reflected the fact that the convict had little scope of reform and would be a threat to society if not appropriately punished.
The Trial Court then went on to consider the mitigating circumstances for the case. It observed them to be three - (1) the fact that the accused is 32 years old, is an unmarried shopkeeper, (2) has no criminal antecedent and (3) the family circumstances such as the fact that he is from a rural background.
The HC noted that again citing the Apex Court in Mukesh, the trial Court observed that in order to ensure justice,courts ought to impose punishment that befits the crime; thus factors such as young age of the accused, absence of criminal antecedent and poor background cannot be said to be mitigating circumstances.
Relying on this principle, the trial Court found that the crime committed in the instant case was diabolic in nature, and the manner of achieving it, where helpless family members were murdered by brutally inflicting dozens of injuries on their bodies, made the cruelty of the convict apparent. Such acts were bound to shock the conscience of society. The Court also stated that such a brutal massacre instils a sense of insecurity and helplessness in community especially amongst women and the brutality and viciousness of the crime shocks the collective conscience of society. Therefore it was the duty of law enforcing systems to remedy the situation.
The Court reasoned that the aggravating circumstance of the case outweighed the mitigating circumstances. The gruesome nature of the crime showed that high viciousness and cruelty, more so because the reason for provocation was the greed of wealth and to grab the property. Since the well-settled principle of rarest of rare test largely depended on the perception of society, factors like society's abhorrence, extreme indignation and antipathy to some instances ought to be considered. It further reasoned that especially since the cases of crimes against women have become rampant, the courts needed to send a strong deterrent message to the perpetrators of such crimes. Subsequently, on a consideration of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, the Court stated that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances and thus sentences the accused to death. Accordingly, the accused was sentenced to the death penalty.
"We find that although the Trial Court has discussed the principles of death sentencing and reasoned that the gruesome and diabolic nature of the crime and motive for the crime was the particular reason for awarding the rarest of the rare penalty, the Court failed in the due application of its mind on essential mitigating circumstances", said the division bench.
The bench observed that while factors such as the socio-economic condition of the accused, lack of criminal antecedent, and him being a young man were mitigating factors that the Court did consider. However, the Court failed in believing that the whole prosecution case was based on circumstantial evidence and 'residual doubt' and presumption of innocence still existed in favour of the accused as a relevant mitigating circumstance.
"No doubt that the manner of committing the crime was brutal, but the Court heavily erred in ascribing the motive of the crime as an aggravating circumstance, considering that the whole finding on motive was a result of statements of interested witnesses", noted the bench.
Another fallacy, as per the bench, was in awarding further simple imprisonment on account of non-payment of a fine. If a person were to be hanged till death, then how would the question of serving simple imprisonment arise?, it asked.
"The gravity of the award of the death penalty need not be reiterated. It is an ultimate and irreversible award of punishment to a person. This is also the reason why the Courts have refrained from laying down cases where the death penalty should be awarded and left it to judicial discretion guided by principles, to decide on facts of every case. It is true that only in the gravest of cases of extreme culpability, the sentence of death must be awarded - life imprisonment being the rule and death penalty the exception. This is also the reason why the Hon'ble Apex Court has been clear that judges ought not to be bloodthirsty and give due consideration to mitigating factors", said the bench.
"The fact that case is purely based on circumstantial evidence and 'residual doubt' remains, distinguished from principle of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in the case; such becomes a mitigating circumstance for commutation of the death penalty. The standard of proof for a death sentence is essentially raised from the standard of proof applied for a conviction", it reiterated.
Finally, the bench summarised the following principles that ought to guide Courts in their decision on death penalty sentencing:
I. Rarest of rare cases
II. Judicial discretion on sentencing must be accompanied by application of judicial mind, and governed by rule of law.
III. The judgment must be supported by special reasons.
IV. Balancing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances
V. Weightage to every relevant circumstance relating to the crime and the criminal
VI. Residual doubt becomes a mitigating circumstance, more so, for cases based on circumstantial evidence.
VII. Judicial approach must be cautious, circumspect and careful.
VIII. Sessions court, in particular, must rigorously apply the rarest of rare case principle, they cannot do lip service to application of judicious mind, and their discretion is liable to be corrected by superior courts as a safeguard.
IX. Principle of retribution
X. Doctrine of rehabilitation
XI. The Court must not be an oracle of the public opinion and recognize limits to judicial power. They must ensure that individual rights guaranteed by the constitution are at a higher pedestal than public opinion.
"We, accordingly, answer the Death Reference to be in the negative. Also, for all the aforesaid reasons, we allow the appeal filed by accused Niranjan @ Alakh Deo Kumar and set aside the judgment of conviction dated 18th January 2018 and order of sentence dated 23rd January 2018 passed in Sessions Trial. The appellant Niranjan @ Alakh Deo Kumar stands acquitted from the charges under Section 302/34 of the Indian Penal Code, levelled against him. Presently, he is in jail and as such be released forthwith unless required in any other case", held the bench.