September has been a heaven-sent month for seven persons whose death penalty awarded by high courts for committing heinous crimes like rape and murder was commuted by the Supreme Court.
The judgments pronounced this month in their criminal appeals also raise a suspicion whether the apex court is becoming more and more reluctant to award death penalty.
The Bench comprising Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Prafulla C. Pant and Justice Uday Umesh Lalit set aside death penalty in six cases, of which three were rape-cum-murder cases, and other three being multiple murder cases.
Out of six cases which came before the Bench, it acquitted the accused in one case, acquitted the accused of murder charges in two other cases, and commuted death penalty in other three cases.
Another Bench comprising Justice Chelameswar, Justice Shiva Kirti Singh and Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre commuted death penalty in one rape-cum-murder case.
September 1: Triple murder case (Madhya Pradesh)
A three-judge Bench of the apex court comprising Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Prafulla C. Pant and Justice Uday Umesh Lalit commuted the death penalty awarded to one Shyam Singh from Madhya Pradesh after he was found guilty of committing parenticide and murdering his nephew.
September 8: Rape-cum-murder of 7 year old (Madhya Pradesh)
The same Bench acquitted a rape-cum-murder accused of murder charges and upheld life imprisonment and conviction under Section 376 (2) (f) and 377 IPC. (Rajesh vs. State of Madhya Pradesh)
September 15: Soumya rape-cum-murder case (Kerala)
The Bench acquitted Govindachami, the accused in Soumya rape-cum-murder case, of murder charges, while upholding the conviction and sentence under Section 376 IPC for rape and other offences. (Govindaswamy vs. State of Kerala)
September 15: Multiple murder case (Jammu and Kashmir)
The Bench commuted death penalty of one Ghulam Mohi-Ud-Din Wani from Jammu and Kashmir, who was convicted for his involvement in the death of one Mohd. Yousuf Ganai and his family members, and also for the murder of one Mohd. Ishaq Bhat. (Ghulam Mohi-Ud-Din Wani vs. State of J & K)
September 18: Rape-cum-murder of 7 year old (Madhya Pradesh)
Another SC Bench comprising Justice Chelameswar, Justice Shiva Kirti Singh and Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre commuted the death sentence awarded by a trial court and confirmed by the High Court of Madhya Pradesh for a man accused of raping and murdering a 7-year-old girl, to life imprisonment with the further direction that he shall not be released from prison till he completes the actual period of 25 years of imprisonment.
September 21: Rape-cum-murder of 7 year old (Madhya Pradesh)
The SC Bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi commuted the death penalty imposed by the trial court and the high court on Kamlesh @ Ghanti, who was found guilty of raping and murdering a 7-year-old girl.
September 23: Murder of wife and five kids (Chhattisgarh)
The Bench acquitted Dhal Singh Dewangan, who was sentenced to death by the Chhattisgarh High Court for killing his wife and five minor children by a 2:1 majority. Justices Ranjan Gogoi and U.U. Lalit have set aside the high court judgment that confirmed the death penalty while Justice Prafulla C. Pant upheld the judgment.
Similar ratio, similar sentencing in two cases
Interestingly, there is quite similarity in reasoning and alteration of sentences in judgments of 8th (Rajesh vs. State of Madhya Pradesh) and 15th September (Govindaswamy vs. State of Kerala).
In both cases, the Bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi acquitted the accused of murder charges, and upheld life imprisonment for rape. Ambiguity with respect to injury that caused the death was prime reason for setting aside the conviction under Section 302 IPC and converting it to conviction under Section 325 IPC for grievous hurt, in both the cases. Apparently, the Soumya rape-cum-murder case was finally heard by the Bench on 8th September, the day on which the other judgment was pronounced by the same Bench.
First 376A IPC conviction?
Another notable fact is that in Kamlesh @ Ghanti case, the court, perhaps for the first time, upheld a conviction under Section 376A IPC, which was incorporated by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 (introduced after Nirbhaya incident), while sentencing the accused for imprisonment for his rest of natural life. The amendment came into force on 3.4.2013, and the date of occurrence of crime was 18.04.2013.
Lack of active participation in murder a factor against awarding death penalty?
The Bench in Ghulam Mohi-Ud-Din Wani vs. State of Jammu & Kashmir made an important observation that the absence of active participation in murder should go into the judicial determination of the question of appropriate punishment.