Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Supreme Court redefines death penalty & life sentence

Even as Parliament remains the focus of discussion today because of trust (thrust?) vote, a momentous judgment from the Supreme Court on death penalty should be taken note of. This pertains to the Swamy Shraddananda case discussed at the time of hearing on this blog. The unanimous judgment delivered by the three-Judge Bench takes note of the recent Amnesty Report (also discussed here), and acknowledges its contribution to the stand of the Bench in this case.

The Bench commuted the death penalty awarded to the convict by the trial court and the high court, to life sentence, but underlined that life means life, and the convict should be in jail for the rest of his life, and not just for 14 years. This is perhaps the first time when the Court has clearly laid down that executive clemency should not mean that the Court cannot award life sentence beyond 14 years. The Bench found that there is a huge gap between 14 years and death penalty, and the Court's options to impose an appropriate punishment should not be closed.

The Bench said: "The truth of the matter is that the question of death penalty is not free from the subjective element and the confirmation of death sentence or its commutation by this Court depends a good deal on the personal predilection of the judges constituting the bench."

The Bench has given three specific reasons why in this case, they could not endorse death penalty. First, the convict devised the plan so that the victim could not know till the end and even for a moment that she was betrayed by the one she trusted most. Second, though the way of killing appears quite ghastly it may be said that it did not cause any mental or physical pain to the victim. Thirdly, as noted by Sinha J. (in the previous split judgment with Justice Katju) the appellant confessed his guilt at least partially before the High Court. The merits of these reasons are entirely debatable, and this only confirms what the Bench itself admitted, that is, the Judges are not free from subjective element. This inconsistency only shows why the constitutionality of death penalty needs to be reconsidered by a Bench larger than that of Bachan Singh.
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