The Supreme Court on Wednesday commuted the death penalty of a convict accused of killing three people, including two women, and questioned if the punishment had proved to be deterrent enough for heinous crimes in society, PTI reported. In a 2:1 majority judgement, however, the bench upheld the constitutional validity of the death penalty.
A bench comprising Justices Kurian Joseph, Deepak Gupta and Hemant Gupta, unanimously ruled to commute the death sentence given to Chhattisgarh resident Chhannu Lal Verma to life term. Justice Joseph, who is due to retire on Thursday, disagreed with the other two judges on the suitability of the death sentence.
“We are of the view that a time has come where we view the need for death penalty as a punishment, especially its purpose and practice,” he said. Justice Joseph cited the 262nd report of the Law Commission and said that the constitutional regulation of capital punishment has failed to prevent death sentences from being “arbitrarily and freakishly imposed” and that it has failed to achieve any constitutionally valid goals.
Justice Joseph said that the court should keep in mind the “irrevocable nature” of the sentence and the fact that death row convicts are between life and death for long periods of time.
“Every death penalty case before the court deals with a human life that enjoys certain constitutional protection and if life is to be taken away, then the process must adhere to the strictest and highest constitutional standards,” he said. “Our conscience as judges, which is guided by constitutional principles, cannot allow anything less than that.”
But Justices Deepak Gupta and Hemant Gupta said there is no need to reexamine the constitutional validity of the death sentence in the Indian Penal Code at this stage as a five-judge constitution bench had done the same in 1980.
Justice Joseph, who wrote the verdict, also expressed his concern regarding the public discourse in such crimes and the media trial that follows. “The court’s duty to be constitutionally correct even when its view is counter-majoritarian is also a factor which should weigh with the court when it deals with the collective conscience of the people or public opinion,” he said. “After all, the society’s perspective is generally formed by the emotionally charged narratives. Such narratives need not necessarily be legally correct, properly informed or procedurally proper.”
A sessions court in Chhattisgarh had sentenced Verma to death in June 2013, describing the murders as a rarest of rare case. The Chhattisgarh High Court upheld the verdict the next year. But the Supreme Court commuted it and observed that the law had been incorrectly applied.
“The decision to impose the highest punishment of death sentence in this case does not fulfil the test of rarest of rare case where the alternative option is unquestionably foreclosed,” the Supreme Court said on Wednesday.