PIL questions validity of ‘jail term for life’, Notice issued by Supreme Court

PIL questions validity of ‘jail term for life’, Notice issued by Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a petition asking that definition of life sentence till death be declared unconstitutional as it is violative of the Constitution. The bench headed by Justice Dattu on Friday issued notice to the Centre and sought a reply.

The petition has been filed by Sukh Sagar Mishra, who is undergoing a life sentence after being convicted in a murder case.

The question whether the death penalty can be substituted by the life imprisonment with the further direction that the convict would not be released for the rest of life was considered by the Supreme Court in Swamy Shraddananda v State of Karnataka. The three judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the issue of sentencing consisted of two aspects, a sentence may be excessive considering the nature of crime committed or a sentence may be too low and inadequate.

The judgment authored by Justice Aftab Alam also asked the question, “The sentence of imprisonment for life, literally, shall not by application of different kinds of remission, turn out to be the ordinary run of the mill life term that works out to no more than fourteen years. How can the sentence of imprisonment for life (till its full natural span) given to a convict as a substitute for the death sentence be viewed differently and segregated from the ordinary life imprisonment given as the sentence of first choice?”

The judgment highlighted the fact that whenever an appellant comes before the Supreme Court in a case where death sentence has been awarded by the Trial Court and has also been confirmed by the High Court, the Supreme Court may hold a view that the offence does not come within the ambit of the rarest of the rare category and may be reluctant in endorsing the death sentence. However, at the same time, the Court may also feel that a life sentence, which really means only 14 years behind bars in practice, will be highly inadequate in relation to the crime committed. The Court can then award a life sentence stating the amount of time the convict will have to spend behind bars.

The legality of the judgment of Swamy Shraddananda was then challenged before the Supreme Court in Union of India v. V. Sriharan wherein Union of India had prayed for quashing of letter issued by the Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu to the Secretary, Government of India wherein the State of Tamil Nadu proposed to remit the sentence of life imprisonment and to release some convicts who were convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi Assassination Case. The court observed that “All the issues raised in the given case are of utmost critical concern for the whole of the country, as the decision on these issues will determine the procedure for awarding sentences in the criminal justice system.” The petition was then directed to be listed before the Constitution Bench.

In the present case, Advocate HP Sharma, appearing for the petitioner submitted before the Court that a sentence for whole of life is excessive and illegal. His petition states,  “Definition of life sentence till death is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India as the reading of Sections 57 and 58 of IPC which was amended in the year 1956 clearly distinguishes the same and therefore, the sentence of whole life is further violative of Article 21 of the Constitution.”

Live Law also covered Death penalty: The unsettling issues of life and death.