Mental state of offender, not just crime, pertinent to decide punishment: Supreme Court

ON December 9, the Supreme Court, in its judgment in the case of Bhagchandra vs. State of Madhya Pradesh, commuted the death sentence of a first-time offender who had killed his two siblings and a nephew over a property dispute, holding that the court, when imposing a punishment, should not only examine the offence, but also the criminal’s mental state and his socio-economic conditions.

A division bench comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao, B.R. Gavai, and B.V Nagarathna, said:

“The appellant comes from a rural and economically poor background. There are no criminal antecedents. The appellant cannot be said to be a hardened criminal. This is the first offence committed by the appellant, no doubt, a heinous one. The certificate issued by the Jail Superintendent shows that the conduct of the appellant during incarceration has been satisfactory. It cannot, therefore, be said that there is no possibility of the appellant being reformed and rehabilitated foreclosing the alternative option of a lesser sentence and making the imposition of the death sentence imperative”.

Referring to the judgments of the trial court and the Madhya Pradesh High Court, and taking its judgment in Rajendra Pralhadrao Wasnik vs. State of Maharashtra (2018) as precedent, the apex court agreed with the contention of senior counsel N. Hariharan, representing the offender-appellant, that the trial court and high court erred in awarding the sentence since they failed to consider that the convict was a first-time offender rather than a hardened criminal, as they only considered the offence and not the offender, his state of mind, his socioeconomic background and other pertinent factors.

The apex court also noted that in light of the established legal position, they are bound to examine the probability of the accused being reformed and rehabilitated. Additionally, it is their responsibility to analyse not only the offence, but also the perpetrator, his state of mind, and his socio-economic conditions.

The Supreme Court concluded:

“We are therefore inclined to convert the sentence imposed on the appellant from death to life.  However, taking into consideration the gruesome murder of two of his siblings and one nephew,   we are of the view that the appellant deserves rigorous imprisonment of 30 years”.