'Never Endeavoured to Make Death Penalty Redundant,' Says Supreme Court

While stating that capital punishment cannot be ignored as long as it is in the law books, it also qualified that it should be resorted to only in the rarest of rare cases.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court said on Friday signalled that it would not abolish the death penalty, saying there has “never been an endeavour on the part of the judiciary to make the death penalty redundant” and that shall be enforced in “deserving cases”.

A three-judge bench, led by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, made the remarks on Friday, June 24, while upholding the death penalty awarded to a man for the rape and murder of a seven-and-a-half-year-old mentally and physically challenged girl from Rajasthan in 2013.

“The quest for justice in such cases, with death sentence being awarded and maintained only in extreme cases, does not mean that the matter would be approached and examined in the manner that death sentence has be avoided, even if the matter indeed calls for such a punishment,” LiveLaw quoted the bench as saying.

The order assumes significance as civil society members have argued that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent in cases of sexual violence, while also observing that there it is invoked more often against marginalised sections of society.

The judges clarified that the judiciary cannot ignore the death penalty as an “alternative punishment” as long as it remained in the law books. However, it also affirmed that capital punishment should be awarded only in the rarest of rare cases and even proposed extended prison terms without remission.

In the particular case, the court observed that the crime had been of “extreme depravity”, shocking the conscience, particularly looking at the target (a seven-and-a-half-year-old mentally and physically challenged girl) and then, looking at the manner of committing murder, where the hapless victim’s head was literally smashed, resulting in multiple injuries including a fracture of the frontal bone.

“The judicial process, in our view, would be compromising on its objectivity if the approach is to nullify the statutory provision carrying death sentence as an alternative punishment for major offences (like that of Section 302 IPC), even after it has passed the muster of judicial scrutiny and has been held not unconstitutional,” the bench noted.

The court categorically stated that the hunt for mitigating circumstances to help save a condemned prisoner from the noose should not be an excuse to forsake the death penalty.

“The pursuit in collecting mitigating circumstances could also not be taken up with any notion or idea that somehow, some factor be found; or if not found, be deduced anyhow so that the sentence of death be forsaken. Such an approach would be unrealistic, unwarranted and rather not upholding the rule of law,” the bench clarified.

The court also rejected the suggestion made on behalf of the appellant that his psychological evaluation report may be called. While upholding the death sentence, the court noted that the man’s conduct even after the crime had shown he was beyond reform. He is also accused of murdering a fellow jail inmate.

The Rajasthan high court sentenced the convict to a death sentence on May 29, 2015, which the apex court upheld. The high court had said the case falls within the category of the rarest of rare cases and had upheld the judgment, in turn, passed by a sessions court.

“In our opinion, the judgment passed by the sessions court suffers from no error,” the high court had said. The man kidnapped, raped and murdered the girl on January 17, 2013.

In April this year, another bench of the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of a man who was convicted of raping a four-year-old girl to life imprisonment, saying there are other ways of “repairing the crippled psyche of the offender” than handing out the maximum punishment prescribed.

The bench of Justices U.U. Lalit, S. Ravindra Bhat and Bela M. Trivedi said it was “balancing the scales of retributive justice and restorative justice” and sentenced the convict to 20 years of imprisonment.

(With PTI inputs)