The rarest of rare doctrine has its origins in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980). The court declared Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, which prescribes the death penalty for murder, as constitutionally valid. It limits the imposition of punishment and sentence in the rarest of rare cases.
On March 5, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered verdicts in three different death penalty cases. In two of those the court entirely exonerated the suspects, while in the third it not only found the accused guilty of murder, but also deserving of capital punishment.
Two persons were convicted of murdering five women and were sentenced to death in 2014. The Chhattisgarh High Court affirmed these sentences. As the order of conviction was based upon testimony of a nine-year-old child, who was, shockingly, not even an eye-witness to the crime, the court therefore ruled that a conviction was based on surmise and conjecture.
In 2006, a trial court found six persons guilty of rape and murder and sentenced each of them to death. The Bombay High Court confirmed the finding of guilt, but commuted the sentences imposed on three of the individuals to life imprisonment. In 2009, the Supreme Court not only dismissed the appeals filed by those sentenced to death but also enhanced the penalties of the three persons whose sentences had been commuted by ordering that they too be punished with death. The court relied on a 1996 verdict, in Ravji v. State of Rajasthan, where it had ruled that in determining whether to award the death penalty “it is the nature and gravity of the crime” alone that demand consideration. The Apex Court recalled its order sentencing the six persons to death. It records:
“The accused remained under constant stress and in the perpetual fear of death.”
One of the accused persons was found to be a juvenile at the time when the alleged crime was committed. As he was kept in solitary confinement and others for having spent more than a decade on death row despite having committed no crime, the bench ordered that the state pay each of them a sum of Rs. 5 lakh.
The court did not place on record any evidence that the state was called on to produce evidence to answer whether the accused was, in fact, capable of reformation or not. It merely endorses the death sentence by holding that there simply were no mitigating circumstances warranting an alternative penalty.
It is now abundantly clear that capital punishment serves no legitimate penological purpose. There is no empirical evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime. Independent studies have repeatedly shown the converse to be true. Evidence points that there is disproportionate application of the sentence, with the most economically and socially marginalised class. The Death Penalty India Report (DPIR), released on May 6, 2016, by Project 39A of the National Law University, Delhi shows that 74% of prisoners on death row, at the time of the study, were economically vulnerable, and 63% were either the primary or sole earners in their families. More than 60% of those sentenced to death had not completed their secondary school education, and 23% had never attended school. 76% of those sentenced to death belonged to backward classes and religious minorities, including all 12 female prisoners.
According to my view, the retention of capital punishment utterly undermines the country’s moral foundations. This is because, the application is made all the more sinister by invariably imposing these standards on the most vulnerable members of society. Justice can not stand on vengeance notion.
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