The death penalty and humanising criminal justice

Source: The post is based on an article The death penalty and humanising criminal justice” published in The Hindu on 29th October 2022.

Syllabus: GS 2 – Governance

News: The three-judge bench that included the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice U.U. Lalit has taken constructive steps to correct issues related to the death penalty law.

The findings of the Death Penalty India Report (2016) and the Deathworthy (Project 39A of the National Law University Delhi) report helped the CJI in providing a structure for death penalty law.

What is the step taken by the three-judge bench of SC?

A three-judge bench that included CJI has focused on restructuring ‘Framing Guidelines Regarding Potential Mitigating Circumstances to be Considered While Imposing Death Sentences’.

It has also referred the matter to the larger Bench of the SC to come up with procedural norms for imposing the death sentence. The direction of a larger bench will ensure uniformity in the death penalty decision.

The reference to larger bench will be a step towards justice reforms in the death penalty sentencing. It is because there are various limitations imposed by law (Section 354(3) in the Code of Criminal Procedure) and judiciary (deciding the ‘rarest of rare’ case).

How the decision of the three-judge bench is a positive step towards reform in the capital punishment?

In the ‘Bachan Singh case’ the SC highlighted Section 235(2) of Code of Criminal Procedure.

Section 235(2) grants a right to pre-sentence hearing after conviction but the decision of trial court and the appellate court conflict with the decision given in the ‘Bachan Singh case’.

This issue of difference in opinion is highlighted by Justice Ravindra Bhat. He has further highlighted the limitation in deciding the ‘rarest of rare’ case and has also asked the sentencing court to balance aggravating and mitigating factors.

SC in its past observation has said that the accused in a death sentence has less choice of defending itself and placing mitigating circumstances after the conviction as aggravating circumstances would always be on record.

However, the decision of the three-judge Bench has overruled the past judgment. It has said it is necessary to have clarity in the matter to ensure a uniform approach with providing real and meaningful opportunity to the accused.

However, the problem lies with transforming real and meaningful opportunity into reality and in its application.

Further, the three-judge bench decision has also highlighted judgment of ‘Manoj and Ors. vs State of M.P’.

SC in ‘Manoj and Ors. vs State of M.P’ said that the trial court must consider the factors such as social environment, educational level, mental state, etc. of the accused when dealing with death penalty.

What is the way ahead?

The decision and initiative taken by three-judge bench will have a positive outcome but the future shape to humanise criminal justice will ultimately depend upon two things.

First, the composition of larger Bench on the death penalty matter and the inclination of the judiciary to bring reforms in the death penalty laws.

Second, the acceptance of meaningful hearing and its broader application even at the earlier guilt determination stage will depend on the society.

Therefore, the two components (culpability/guilt and sanction/punishment) must be taken into account in giving a death penalty.

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