The Supreme Court upheld the sentences of only 73 of 1,486 prisoners awarded the death penalty by trial courts between 2000-2015. This means that capital punishment awarded to an overwhelming 95.1% of prisoners “was declared unjustified and unwarranted in law” by higher courts, according to a landmark study.

That’s not all: about 30% of the death row prisoners studied were eventually acquitted, Delhi had the highest number of death sentences per 10 lakh population, and the majority of prisoners (76%) sentenced to death were from the backward classes, or religious minorities.

These are the findings of a two-year-long study by the Death Penalty Project, a research centre established by the National Law University in Delhi. The report is scheduled to be released in the national capital on Friday evening.

The Death Penalty Project research is the first of its kind. While there is plenty of research relating to the legal facets of the death penalty in India, very little work has been done on the other aspects of capital punishment, especially pertaining to people on death row.

Headed by Anup Surendranath, assistant professor at NLU, the project involved both qualitative and quantitative research.

The quantitative research study involved examining judgments pertaining to 1,810 prisoners who were sentenced to death by trial courts from 2000 to 2015. The qualitative study involved interviewing 373 convicts to get an idea about convicts's socio-economic conditions, educational qualifications, ages and family circumstances, which often determines the kind of legal representation convicts get during trial.

For the qualitative research study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with more than 300 prisoners who were sentenced to death between July 2013 and January 2015. Their families were also interviewed. This study sought to get answers to questions like: What happens to a prisoner during his arrest, trial, and the prolonged wait for appeals to be heard? What are the circumstances under which people are arrested, tried and sentenced to death?

The qualitative study brought out crucial issues related to the death penalty. For instance, it found that most of the prisoners sentenced to death were economically vulnerable and were unable to arrange good legal representation for themselves.

Economic capabilities are critical to participating in the criminal justice system in many ways. Starting from obtaining bail, legal representation and expert witnesses at the trial stage to sustaining the appellate process in the High Court and the Supreme Court, these capabilities are vital.

Of the prisoners sentenced to death, 74.1% were economically vulnerable. These prisoners are either manual casual labourers, or marginal/small cultivators less than four hectares of land, low-paid employees, small proprietors, students or unemployed.

Of these, 34.9% of them were the sole earners in the family, and 28.2% of them were the primary earning members for the family.

Of the prisoners sentenced to death, 76% were from the backward classes or religious minorities.

Some convicts also told the researchers that they were juveniles at the time of the offence, but were unable to provide any documentary proof of their ages. This is despite India having safeguards under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act that prohibits juveniles from even being arrested in a police station, let alone being sentenced to death.

The study also found that a sizeable number of prisoners on death row were between the ages of 18 and 25. This is despite Supreme Court judgements that speak against sentencing a young person to death.

The report stated that its findings called “for a deeper interrogation into the reason for the imposition of the death penalty by trial courts in the overwhelming number of cases where it is found to be unwarranted”.