Trial courts across the country passed 165 death sentences in 2022 – the highest in a single year since 2000, a report released on Monday by criminal reforms advocacy group Project 39A showed.

The report titled, Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics Report 2022, also said that by the end of the last year, 539 persons were on death row in India, the highest since 2004. The report said that this was because of an increase in the number of death sentences imposed by trial courts and fewer cases being heard in appeal by higher courts.

Number of persons on death row in India since 2016. (Credits: Project 39A)

The report highlighted that the increase in death sentences came seen in the same year the Supreme Court decided to revisit the opportunity given to those sentenced to death penalty to present their mitigating circumstances before conviction by trial courts.

Mitigating circumstances are arguments that accused persons can present in their defence to avoid death sentences. These circumstances include mental health problems, trauma in early life, absence of criminal records or other such instances which might be reasons for the judges to pass a reduced sentence.

In September, a three judge-bench of the Supreme Court, hearing a plea on the matter, had referred it to a five-judge Constitution bench.

In its report, Project 39A pointed out that in 98.3% of the cases in 2022, trial courts gave the verdict “without having any materials on mitigating circumstances of the accused and without any state-led evidence on the question of reform”.

Among the states, the highest number of death row convicts were in Uttar Pradesh (100), followed by by Gujarat (61) and Jharkhand (46), according to the report. Meanwhile, trial courts in Gujarat imposed the highest number of death penalties (51) in 2022.

(Credits: Project 39A)

Even as trial courts passed the highest number of death sentences in over two decades, very few of them have been upheld by higher courts.

In the 68 cases decided by High Courts across the country in 2022, only four death sentences were confirmed, while 40 accused persons in 19 cases were acquitted. Fifty-one accused persons in 39 cases were handed lesser sentences and six cases were referred back to trial courts, the report added.

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