The Supreme Court has commuted death sentence awarded to a man accused of rape and murder of his two and half year old niece.
He did not consciously cause any injury with the intent to extinguish the life of the victim, the bench comprising Justices Uday Umesh Lalit, Krishna Murari and Indu Malhotra observed while commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment for the offence punishable under Section 302 IPC and to that of rigorous imprisonment for 25 years for the offence punishable under Section 376A IPC.
Shatrugna Baban Meshram, who was the uncle of the deceased victim girl, was convicted by the Trial Court under Section 302, 376A, 376(1), (2)(f), (i) and (m) of IPC, and under Section 6 of the POCSO Act. He was awarded death penalty. The High Court affirmed the death sentence awarded by the Trial Court and dismissed the appeal filed by the accused.
While referring to the evidence on record, the Apex Court bench observed that it has been established beyond any shadow of doubt that the accused committed the acts of rape and sexual assault upon the victim and that the resultant injury was the cause of death of the victim. "Considering the age of the victim in the present case, the accused must have known the consequence that his sexual assault on a child of 2 ½ years would cause death or such bodily injury as was likely to cause her death. The instant matter thus comes within the parameters of clause fourthly to Section 300 IPC and the question posed at the beginning of the discussion on this issue must be answered against the Appellant. The Appellant is therefore guilty of having committed the offence of culpable homicide amounting to murder.", the bench observed.
In the judgement, the bench referred to a table of 67 cases were dealt with by the Supreme Court in last 40 years since the decision of this Court in Bachan Singh , where i) the alleged offences were under Sections 376 and 302 IPC; and ii) the ages of the victims were 16 years or below. "Out of these 67 cases, at least in 51 cases the victims were aged below 12 years. In 12 out of those 51 cases, the death sentence was initially awarded. However, in 3 cases (at Sr. Nos. 26A, 33A and 41A) the death sentence was commuted to life sentence in Review", the bench noted.
Regarding the sentence, the bench observed that merely on account of infraction of Section 235 (2) of the Code, the death sentence ought not to be commuted to life imprisonment. On the issue whether in cases of circumstantial evidence, death penalty can be imposed, the bench referred to various precedents and observed thus:
a) it is not as if imposition of death penalty is impermissible to be awarded in circumstantial evidence cases; and b) if the circumstantial evidence is of an unimpeachable character in establishing the guilt of the accused and leads to an exceptional case or the evidence sufficiently convinces the judicial mind that the option of a sentence lesser than death penalty is foreclosed, the death penalty can be imposed.It must therefore be held that merely because the instant case is based on circumstantial evidence there is no reason to commute the death sentence. However, the matter must be considered in the light of the aforestated principles and see whether the circumstantial evidence is of unimpeachable character and the option of a lesser sentence is foreclosed.
The court said that, however, while dealing with cases based on circumstantial evidence, for imposition of a death sentence, higher or stricter standard must be insisted upon. The bench thus proceeded to consider the following aspects (A) Whether the circumstantial evidence in the present case is of unimpeachable character in establishing the guilt of the Appellant or leads to an exceptional case. (B) Whether the evidence on record is so strong and convincing that the option of a sentence lesser than a death penalty is foreclosed? On the first question, the bench observed:
"The circumstances are clear, consistent and conclusive in nature and are of unimpeachable character in establishing the guilt of the Appellant. The evidence on record also depicts an exceptional case where two and half years old girl was subjected to sexual assault. The assault was accompanied by bites on the body of the victim. The rape was of such intensity that there was merging of vaginal and anal orifices of the victim. The age of the victim, the fact that the Appellant was a maternal uncle of the victim and the intensity of the assault make the present case an exceptional one."
The court then observed that it does not find the option of a sentence lesser than death penalty is completely foreclosed. It observed:
"It is true that the sexual assault was very severe and the conduct of the Appellant could be termed as perverse and barbaric. However, a definite pointer in favour of the Appellant is the fact that he did not consciously cause any injury with the intent to extinguish the life of the victim. Though all the injuries are attributable to him and it was injury No.17 which was the cause of death, his conviction under Section 302 IPC is not under any of the first three clauses of Section 300 IPC. In matters where the conviction is recorded with the aid of clause fourthly under Section 300 of IPC, it is very rare that the death sentence is awarded",
Referring to the table, the bench said that where the victims were below 16 years of age and had died during the course of sexual assault on them, the maximum sentence awarded was life sentence. This aspect is of crucial importance while considering whether the option of a sentence lesser than death penalty is foreclosed or not, it added. The court also observed that, in view of the fact that Section 376A IPC was brought on the statute book just few days before the commission of the offence, the accused does not deserve death penalty for said offence.
Case: SHATRUGHNA BABAN MESHRAM vs. STATE OF MAHARASHTRA [CRIMINAL APPEAL NOS.763-764 OF 2016]Coram: Justices Uday Umesh Lalit, Krishna Murari and Indu MalhotraCounsel: Sr. Adv Sonia Mathur, Adv Sushil Karanjkar