|Justice Swatanter Kumar|
Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court in Ramnaresh Vs. State of Chhattisgarh has examined the principles governing the conversion of death sentence in life imprisonment. While dealing with various judicial pronouncements on capital punishment, the Supreme Court has reiterated the principle of awarding death sentence in the 'rarest of rare cases'. The relevant extracts from the judgment are reproduced hereinbelow;
The death sentence and principles governing its conversion to life imprisonment
25. Despite the transformation of approach and radical changes in principles of sentencing across the world, it has not been possible to put to rest the conflicting views on sentencing policy. The sentencing policy being a significant and inseparable facet of criminal jurisprudence, has been inviting the attention of the Courts for providing certainty and greater clarity to it. Capital punishment has been a subject matter of great social and judicial discussion and castacism. From whatever point of view it is examined, one undisputable statement of law follows that it is neither possible nor prudent to state any universal formula which would be applicable to all the cases of criminology where capital punishment has been prescribed. It shall always depend upon the facts and circumstances of a given case. This Court has stated various legal principles which would be precepts on exercise of judicial discretion in cases where the issue is whether the capital punishment should or should not be awarded.
26. The law requires the Court to record special reasons for awarding such sentence. The Court, therefore, has to consider matters like nature of the offence, how and under what circumstances it was committed, the extent of brutality with which the offence was committed, the motive for the offence, any provocative or aggravating circumstances at the time of commission of the crime, the possibility of the convict being reformed or rehabilitated, adequacy of the sentence of life imprisonment and other attendant circumstances. These factors cannot be similar or identical in any two given cases. Thus, it is imperative for the Court to examine each case on its own facts, in light of the enunciated principles. It is only upon application of these principles to the facts of a given case that the Court can arrive at a final conclusion whether the case in hand is one of the `rarest of rare' cases and imposition of death penalty alone shall serve the ends of justice. Further, the Court would also keep in mind that if such a punishment alone would serve the purpose of the judgment, in its being sufficiently punitive and purposefully preventive.
27. In order to examine this aspect in some greater depth and with objectivity, it is necessary for us to reiterate the various guiding factors. Suffices it to make reference to a recent judgment of this Court in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Goraksha Ambaji Adsul [(2011) 7 SCC 437], wherein this Court discussed the law in some detail and enunciated the principles as follows :
"30. The principles governing the sentencing policy in our criminal jurisprudence have more or less been consistent, right from the pronouncement of the Constitution Bench judgment of this Court in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab. Awarding punishment is certainly an onerous function in the dispensation of criminal justice. The court is expected to keep in mind the facts and circumstances of a case, the principles of law governing award of sentence, the legislative intent of special or general statute raised in the case and the impact of awarding punishment. These are the nuances which need to be examined by the court with discernment and in depth.
31. The legislative intent behind enacting Section 354(3) CrPC clearly demonstrates the concern of the legislature for taking away a human life and imposing death penalty upon the accused. Concern for the dignity of the human life postulates resistance to taking a life through law's instrumentalities and that ought not to be done, save in the rarest of rare cases, unless the alternative option is unquestionably foreclosed. In exercise of its discretion, the court would also take into consideration the mitigating circumstances and their resultant effects.
32. The language of Section 354(3) demonstrates the legislative concern and the conditions which need to be satisfied prior to imposition of death penalty. The words, "in the case of sentence of death, the special reasons for such sentence" unambiguously demonstrate the command of the legislature that such reasons have to be recorded for imposing the punishment of death sentence. This is how the concept of the rarest of rare cases has emerged in law. Viewed from that angle, both the legislative provisions and judicial pronouncements are at ad idem in law. The death penalty should be imposed in the rarest of rare cases and that too for special reasons to be recorded. To put it simply, a death sentence is not a rule but an exception. Even the exception must satisfy the prerequisites contemplated under Section 354(3) CrPC in light of the dictum of the Court in Bachan Singh.
33. The Constitution Bench judgment of this Court in Bachan Singh has been summarised in para 38 in Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab and the following guidelines have been stated while considering the possibility of awarding sentence of death: (Machhi Singh case, SCC p. 489)
"(i) The extreme penalty of death need not be inflicted except in gravest cases of extreme culpability.
(ii) Before opting for the death penalty the circumstances of the `offender' also requires to be taken into consideration along with the circumstances of the `crime'.
(iii) Life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception. ... death sentence must be imposed only when life imprisonment appears to be an altogether inadequate punishment having regard to the relevant circumstances of the crime, and provided, and only provided the option to impose sentence of imprisonment for life cannot be conscientiously exercised having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime and all the relevant circumstances.
(iv) A balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances has to be drawn up and in doing so the mitigating circumstances have to be accorded full weightage and a just balance has to be struck between the aggravating and the mitigating circumstances before the option is exercised."
34. The judgment in Bachan Singh, did not only state the above guidelines in some elaboration, but also specified the mitigating circumstances which could be considered by the Court while determining such serious issues and they are as follows: (SCC p. 750, para 206)
"206. ... `Mitigating circumstances.--In the exercise of its discretion in the above cases, the court shall take into account the following circumstances:
(1) That the offence was committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.
(2) The age of the accused. If the accused is young or old, he shall not be sentenced to death.
(3) The probability that the accused would not commit criminal acts of violence as would constitute a continuing threat to society.
(4) The probability that the accused can be reformed and rehabilitated. The State shall by evidence prove that the accused does not satisfy Conditions (3) and (4) above.
(5) That in the facts and circumstances of the case the accused believed that he was morally justified in committing the offence.
(6) That the accused acted under the duress or domination of another person.
(7) That the condition of the accused showed that he was mentally defective and that the said defect impaired his capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct."
35. Now, we may examine certain illustrations arising from the judicial pronouncements of this Court.
36. In D.K. Basu v. State of W.B. this Court took the view that custodial torture and consequential death in custody was an offence which fell in the category of the rarest of rare cases. While specifying the reasons in support of such decision, the Court awarded death penalty in that case.
37. In Santosh Kumar Satishbhushan Bariyar v. State of Maharashtra this Court also spelt out in paras 56 to 58 that nature, motive, impact of a crime, culpability, quality of evidence, socio- economic circumstances, impossibility of rehabilitation are the factors which the court may take into consideration while dealing with such cases. In that case the friends of the victim had called him to see a movie and after seeing the movie, a ransom call was made, but with the fear of being caught, they murdered the victim. The Court felt that there was no evidence to show that the criminals were incapable of reforming themselves, that it was not a rarest of the rare case, and therefore, declined to award death sentence to the accused.
38. Interpersonal circumstances prevailing between the deceased and the accused was also held to be a relevant consideration in Vashram Narshibhai Rajpara v. State of Gujarat where constant nagging by family was treated as the mitigating factor, if the accused is mentally unbalanced and as a result murders the family members. Similarly, the intensity of bitterness which prevailed and the escalation of simmering thoughts into a thirst for revenge and retaliation were also considered to be a relevant factor by this Court in different cases.
39. This Court in Satishbhushan Bariyar also considered various doctrines, principles and factors which would be considered by the Courts while dealing with such cases. The Court discussed in some elaboration the applicability of the doctrine of rehabilitation and the doctrine of prudence. While considering the application of the doctrine of rehabilitation and the extent of weightage to be given to the mitigating circumstances, it noticed the nature of the evidence and the background of the accused. The conviction in that case was entirely based upon the statement of the approver and was a case purely of circumstantial evidence. Thus, applying the doctrine of prudence, it noticed the fact that the accused were unemployed, young men in search of job and they were not criminals. In execution of a plan proposed by the appellant and accepted by others, they kidnapped a friend of theirs. The kidnapping was done with the motive of procuring ransom from his family but later they murdered him because of the fear of getting caught, and later cut the body into pieces and disposed it off at different places. One of the accused had turned approver and as already noticed, the conviction was primarily based upon the statement of the approver.
40. Basing its reasoning on the application of doctrine of prudence and the version put forward by the accused, the Court, while declining to award death penalty and only awarding life imprisonment, held as under: (Satishbhushan Bariyar case, SCC pp. 551 & 559-60, paras 135, 168-69 & 171-73)
"135. Right to life, in its barest of connotation would imply right to mere survival. In this form, right to life is the most fundamental of all rights.
Consequently, a punishment which aims at taking away life is the gravest punishment. Capital punishment imposes a limitation on the essential content of the fundamental right to life, eliminating it irretrievably. We realise the absolute nature of this right, in the sense that it is a source of all other rights. Other rights may be limited, and may even be withdrawn and then granted again, but their ultimate limit is to be found in the preservation of the right to life. Right to life is the essential content of all rights under the Constitution. If life is taken away, all other rights cease to exist.
168. We must, however, add that in a case of this nature where the entire prosecution case revolves round the statement of an approver or is dependant upon the circumstantial evidence, the prudence doctrine should be invoked. For the aforementioned purpose, at the stage of sentencing evaluation of evidence would not be permissible, the courts not only have to solely depend upon the findings arrived at for the purpose of recording a judgment of conviction, but also consider the matter keeping in view the evidences which have been brought on record on behalf of the parties and in particular the accused for imposition of a lesser punishment. A statement of approver in regard to the manner in which crime has been committed vis-`-vis the role played by the accused, on the one hand, and that of the approver, on the other, must be tested on the touchstone of the prudence doctrine.
169. The accused persons were not criminals. They were friends. The deceased was said to have been selected because his father was rich. The motive, if any, was to collect some money. They were not professional killers. They have no criminal history. All were unemployed and were searching for jobs. Further, if age of the accused was a relevant factor for the High Court for not imposing death penalty on Accused 2 and 3, the same standard should have been applied to the case of the appellant also who was only two years older and still a young man in age. Accused 2 and 3 were as much a part of the crime as the appellant. Though it is true, that it was he who allegedly proposed the idea of kidnapping, but at the same time it must not be forgotten that the said plan was only executed when all the persons involved gave their consent thereto.
171. Section 354(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure requires that when the conviction is for an offence punishable with death or in the alternative with imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term of years, the judgment shall state the reasons for the sentence awarded, and in the case of sentence of death, the special reasons thereof. We do not think that the reasons assigned by the courts below disclose any special reason to uphold the death penalty. The discretion granted to the courts must be exercised very cautiously especially because of the irrevocable character of death penalty. Requirements of law to assign special reasons should not be construed to be an empty formality.
172. We have previously noted that the judicial principles for imposition of death penalty are far from being uniform. Without going into the merits and demerits of such discretion and subjectivity, we must nevertheless reiterate the basic principle, stated repeatedly by this Court, that life imprisonment is the rule and death penalty an exception. Each case must therefore be analysed and the appropriateness of punishment determined on a case-by-case basis with death sentence not to be awarded save in the `rarest of the rare' case where reform is not possible. Keeping in mind at least this principle we do not think that any of the factors in the present case discussed above warrants the award of the death penalty. There are no special reasons to record the death penalty and the mitigating factors in the present case, discussed previously, are, in our opinion, sufficient to place it out of the `rarest of rare' category.
173. For the reasons aforementioned, we are of the opinion that this is not a case where death penalty should be imposed. The appellant, therefore, instead of being awarded death penalty, is sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for life. Subject to the modification in the sentence of the appellant (A-1) mentioned hereinbefore, both the appeals of the appellant as also that of the State are dismissed."
(emphasis in original)
41. The above principle, as supported by case illustrations, clearly depicts the various precepts which would govern the exercise of judicial discretion by the courts within the parameters spelt out under Section 354(3) CrPC. Awarding of death sentence amounts to taking away the life of an individual, which is the most valuable right available, whether viewed from the constitutional point of view or from the human rights point of view. The condition of providing special reasons for awarding death penalty is not to be construed linguistically but it is to satisfy the basic features of a reasoning supporting and making award of death penalty unquestionable. The circumstances and the manner of committing the crime should be such that it pricks the judicial conscience of the court to the extent that the only and inevitable conclusion should be awarding of death penalty."
28. In Machhi Singh & Ors. v. State of Rajasthan [(1983) 3 SCC 470], this Court stated certain relevant considerations like the manner of commission of murder, motive for commission of murder, anti-social or socially abhorrent nature of the crime, magnitude of crime and the personality of the victim of murder. These considerations further demonstrate that the matter has to be examined with reference to a particular case, for instance, murder of an innocent child who could not have or has not provided even an excuse, much less a provocation for murder. Similarly, murder of a helpless woman who might be relying on a person because of her age or infirmity, if murdered by that person, would be an indicator of breach of relationship or trust as the case may be. It would neither be proper nor probably permissible that the judicial approach of the court in such matters treat one of the stated considerations or factors as determinative. The court should examine all or majority of the relevant considerations to spell comprehensively the special reasons to be recorded in the order, as contemplated under Section 354(3) of the Cr.P.C. 29. In the case of Dhananjoy Chatterjee @ Dhana v. State of West Bengal [(1994) 2 SCC 220] while affirming the award of death sentence by the High Court, this Court noticed that `in recent years, the rising crime rate-particularly violent crime against women has made the criminal sentencing by the courts a subject of concern'. The Court reiterated the principle that it is not possible to lay down any cut and dry formula relating to imposition of sentence but the object of sentencing should be to see that the crime does not go unpunished and the victim of crime, as also the society, has the satisfaction that justice has been done to it. The Court held as follows:-
"15. In our opinion, the measure of punishment in a given case must depend upon the atrocity of the crime; the conduct of the criminal and the defenceless and unprotected state of the victim. Imposition of appropriate punishment is the manner in which the courts respond to the society's cry for justice against the criminals. Justice demands that courts should impose punishment befitting the crime so that the courts reflect public abhorrence of the crime. The courts must not only keep in view the rights of the criminal but also the rights of the victim of crime and the society at large while considering imposition of appropriate punishment."
30. In this case, the Court was concerned with the case of a security guard who had been transferred at the complaint of a lady living in the flats with regard to teasing of her young girl child. The security guard went up to the flat of the lady, committed rape on her daughter and then murdered her brutally. The Court found it to be a fit case for imposition of capital punishment.
31. Again, in the case of Surja Ram v. State of Rajasthan [(1996) 6 SCC 271], this Court affirmed the death sentence awarded by the High Court primarily taking into consideration that there was no provocation and the manner in which the crime was committed was brutal. Noticing that the Court has to award a punishment which is just and fair by administering justice tempered with such mercy not only as the criminal may justly deserve but also to the rights of the victims of the crime to have the assailant appropriately punished and the society's reasonable expectation from the court for the appropriate deterrent punishment conforming to the gravity of the offence and consistent with the public abhorrence for the heinous crime committed by the accused. The Court further held as under:-
"18. After giving our anxious consideration to the facts and circumstances of the case, it appears to us that for deciding just and appropriate sentence to be awarded for an offence, the aggravating and mitigating factors and circumstances in which a crime has been committed are to be delicately balanced in a dispassionate manner. Such act of balancing is indeed a difficult task. It has been very aptly indicated in Dennis Councle McGautha v. State of California that no formula of a foolproof nature is possible that would provide a reasonable criterion in determining a just and appropriate punishment in the infinite variety of circumstances that may affect the gravity of the crime of murder. In the absence of any foolproof formula which may provide any basis for reasonable criteria to correctly assess various circumstances germane to the consideration of gravity of crime of murder, the discretionary judgment in the facts of each case, is the only way in which such judgment may be equitably distinguished."
32. This Court in Prajeet Kumar Singh v. State of Bihar [(2008) 4 SCC 434], B.A. Umesh v. Registrar General, High Court of Karnataka [(2011) 3 SCC 85], State of Rajasthan v. Kashi Ram [(2006) 12 SCC 254] and Atbir v. Government of NCT of Delhi [(2010) 9 SCC 1] had confirmed the death sentence awarded by the High Courts for different reasons after applying the principles enunciated in one or more afore-referred judgments. 33. Now, we may notice the cases which were relied upon by the learned counsel appearing for the appellants and wherein this Court had declined to confirm the imposition of capital punishment treating them not to be the rarest of rare cases.
34. In Ronny @ Ronald James Alwaris Etc. v. State of Maharashtra [(1998) 3 SCC 625], the Court while relying upon the judgment of this Court in the case of Allauddin Mian & Ors. v. State of Bihar [(1989) 3 SCC 5], held that the choice of the death sentence has to be made only in the `rarest of rare' cases and that where culpability of the accused has assumed depravity or where the accused is found to be an ardent criminal and menace to the society. The Court also noticed the above-stated principle that the Court should ordinarily impose a lesser punishment and not the extreme punishment of death which should be reserved for exceptional cases only. The Court, while considering the cumulative effect of all the factors such as the offences not committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance and the fact that the accused were young and the possibility of their reformation and rehabilitation could not be ruled out, converted death sentence into life imprisonment.
35. Similarly, in the case of Bantu @ Naresh Giri v. State of M.P. [(2001) 9 SCC 615] while dealing with the case of rape and murder of a six year old girl, this Court found that the case was not one of the `rarest of rare' cases. The Court noticed that, accused was less than 22 years at the time of commission of the offence, there were no injuries on the body of the deceased and the death probably occurred as a result of gagging of the nostril by the accused. Thus, the Court while noticing that the crime was heinous, commuted the sentence of death to one of life imprisonment.
36. The above judgments provide us with the dicta of the Court relating to imposition of death penalty. Merely because a crime is heinous per se may not be a sufficient reason for the imposition of death penalty without reference to the other factors and attendant circumstances.
37. Most of the heinous crimes under the IPC are punishable by death penalty or life imprisonment. That by itself does not suggest that in all such offences, penalty of death alone should be awarded. We must notice, even at the cost of repetition, that in such cases awarding of life imprisonment would be a rule, while `death' would be the exception. The term `rarest of rare' case which is the consistent determinative rule declared by this Court, itself suggests that it has to be an exceptional case. The life of a particular individual cannot be taken away except according to the procedure established by law and that is the constitutional mandate. The law contemplates recording of special reasons and, therefore, the expression `special' has to be given a definite meaning and connotation. `Special reasons' in contra-distinction to `reasons' simplicitor conveys the legislative mandate of putting a restriction on exercise of judicial discretion by placing the requirement of special reasons.
38. Since, the later judgments of this Court have added to the principles stated by this Court in the case of Bachan Singh (supra) and Machhi Singh (supra), it will be useful to re-state the stated principles while also bringing them in consonance, with the recent judgments.
39. The law enunciated by this Court in its recent judgments, as already noticed, adds and elaborates the principles that were stated in the case of Bachan Singh (supra) and thereafter, in the case of Machhi Singh (supra). The aforesaid judgments, primarily dissect these principles into two different compartments - one being the `aggravating circumstances' while the other being the `mitigating circumstances'. The Court would consider the cumulative effect of both these aspects and normally, it may not be very appropriate for the Court to decide the most significant aspect of sentencing policy with reference to one of the classes under any of the following heads while completely ignoring other classes under other heads. To balance the two is the primary duty of the Court. It will be appropriate for the Court to come to a final conclusion upon balancing the exercise that would help to administer the criminal justice system better and provide an effective and meaningful reasoning by the Court as contemplated under Section 354(3) Cr.P.C. Aggravating Circumstances :
(1) The offences relating to the commission of heinous crimes like murder, rape, armed dacoity, kidnapping etc. by the accused with a prior record of conviction for capital felony or offences committed by the person having a substantial history of serious assaults and criminal convictions.
(2) The offence was committed while the offender was engaged in the commission of another serious offence.
(3) The offence was committed with the intention to create a fear psychosis in the public at large and was committed in a public place by a weapon or device which clearly could be hazardous to the life of more than one person.
(4) The offence of murder was committed for ransom or like offences to receive money or monetary benefits.
(5) Hired killings.
(6) The offence was committed outrageously for want only while involving inhumane treatment and torture to the victim.
(7) The offence was committed by a person while in lawful custody.
(8) The murder or the offence was committed to prevent a person lawfully carrying out his duty like arrest or custody in a place of lawful confinement of himself or another. For instance, murder is of a person who had acted in lawful discharge of his duty under Section 43 Cr.P.C.
(9) When the crime is enormous in proportion like making an attempt of murder of the entire family or members of a particular community.
(10) When the victim is innocent, helpless or a person relies upon the trust of relationship and social norms, like a child, helpless woman, a daughter or a niece staying with a father/uncle and is inflicted with the crime by such a trusted person.
(11) When murder is committed for a motive which evidences total depravity and meanness.
(12) When there is a cold blooded murder without provocation.
(13) The crime is committed so brutally that it pricks or shocks not only the judicial conscience but even the conscience of the society.
Mitigating Circumstances :
(1) The manner and circumstances in and under which the offence was committed, for example, extreme mental or emotional disturbance or extreme provocation in contradistinction to all these situations in normal course.
(2) The age of the accused is a relevant consideration but not a determinative factor by itself.
(3) The chances of the accused of not indulging in commission of the crime again and the probability of the accused being reformed and rehabilitated.
(4) The condition of the accused shows that he was mentally defective and the defect impaired his capacity to appreciate the circumstances of his criminal conduct.
(5) The circumstances which, in normal course of life, would render such a behavior possible and could have the effect of giving rise to mental imbalance in that given situation like persistent harassment or, in fact, leading to such a peak of human behavior that, in the facts and circumstances of the case, the accused believed that he was morally justified in committing the offence.
(6) Where the Court upon proper appreciation of evidence is of the view that the crime was not committed in a pre-ordained manner and that the death resulted in the course of commission of another crime and that there was a possibility of it being construed as consequences to the commission of the primary crime.
(7) Where it is absolutely unsafe to rely upon the testimony of a sole eye-witness though prosecution has brought home the guilt of the accused.
40. While determining the questions relateable to sentencing policy, the Court has to follow certain principles and those principles are the loadstar besides the above considerations in imposition or otherwise of the death sentence.
(1) The Court has to apply the test to determine, if it was the `rarest of rare' case for imposition of a death sentence.
(2) In the opinion of the Court, imposition of any other punishment, i.e., life imprisonment would be completely inadequate and would not meet the ends of justice. (3) Life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception.
(4) The option to impose sentence of imprisonment for life cannot be cautiously exercised having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime and all relevant considerations.
(5) The method (planned or otherwise) and the manner (extent of brutality and inhumanity, etc.) in which the crime was committed and the circumstances leading to commission of such heinous crime.
41. Stated broadly, these are the accepted indicators for the exercise of judicial discretion but it is always preferred not to fetter the judicial discretion by attempting to make the excessive enumeration, in one way or another. In other words, these are the considerations which may collectively or otherwise weigh in the mind of the Court, while exercising its jurisdiction. It is difficult to state it as an absolute rule. Every case has to be decided on its own merits. The judicial pronouncements, can only state the precepts that may govern the exercise of judicial discretion to a limited extent. Justice may be done on the facts of each case. These are the factors which the Court may consider in its endeavour to do complete justice between the parties.
42. The Court then would draw a balance-sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Both aspects have to be given their respective weightage. The Court has to strike a balance between the two and see towards which side the scale/balance of justice tilts. The principle of proportion between the crime and the punishment is the principle of `just deserts' that serves as the foundation of every criminal sentence that is justifiable. In other words, the `doctrine of proportionality' has a valuable application to the sentencing policy under the Indian criminal jurisprudence. Thus, the court will not only have to examine what is just but also as to what the accused deserves keeping in view the impact on the society at large.
43. Every punishment imposed is bound to have its effect not only on the accused alone, but also on the society as a whole. Thus, the Courts should consider retributive and deterrent aspect of punishment while imposing the extreme punishment of death.
44. Wherever, the offence which is committed, manner in which it is committed, its attendant circumstances and the motive and status of the victim, undoubtedly brings the case within the ambit of `rarest of rare' cases and the Court finds that the imposition of life imprisonment would be inflicting of inadequate punishment, the Court may award death penalty. Wherever, the case falls in any of the exceptions to the `rarest of rare' cases, the Court may exercise its judicial discretion while imposing life imprisonment in place of death sentence.