Perpetrators of brutal crimes deserve no undue leniency: Supreme Court

In a case of rape and murder of a 28 year-old woman by a driver of the company she used to work for while she was returning home late at night, the court held that the accused having no antecedent is no consideration by itself to conclude that the case does not fall within the category of ‘rarest of rare’.

ON March 28, a division bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Abhay S. Oka and Rajesh Bindal, in Shiva Kumar @Shiva @Shivamurthy versus State of Karnataka, held that even if a case does not fall within the ‘rarest of rare’ category, a Constitutional court may, considering all attending circumstances such as the nature and gravity of the offence, impose a modified or fixed-term sentence in order to deny the benefit of statutory remission to the offender.


The case concerns a 28 years-old female victim, who worked in Electronic City, Bengaluru. She used to work late into the night, sometimes till the early hours of the morning, and her office would provide conveyance for her to reach home from the office.

On the day of the crime, the victim left office at 2 a.m. The driver, who is the appellant before the Supreme Court, informed her that the company’s car was not available and that she would have to travel by his vehicle operating on a different route.

The victim went missing thereafter. Her uncle lodged a complaint. Eventually, her dead body was found at the instance of the driver.

The offences punishable under Sections 376 (rape) and 366 (kidnapping, abducting or inducing woman to compel her to marriage, etc.) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) were established against the driver. He was also convicted under Section 302 (punishment for murder) and sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for the rest of his life. However, the trial court did not impose the death penalty as it did not consider the case within the ‘rarest of the rare’ category.

The court considered that at the time of the commission of the offence, the offender was only 27 years old, and he had a wife, a small child and old parents.

In an appeal, the Karnataka High Court found that the punishment was justified considering the balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

Two appeals were filed before the high court— by the convict, challenging the conviction and sentence, and by the State, for the enhancement of punishment. However, both appeals were dismissed.

In a special leave petition before the Supreme Court, the issue to be considered was limited to the sentence imposed under Section 302 of the IPC.

Arguments of the parties 

The counsel for the appellant-offender argued that only a Constitutional court could impose a fixed-term sentence or a modified sentence, and that too only against the commutation of the death penalty. Reliance was placed on the Supreme Court’s decision in Union of India versus V. Sriharan alias Murugan & Ors. (2015).

The majority judgment by three of the five judges on the Constitution bench in V. Sriharan alias Murugan held that “… the power derived from the penal code for any modified punishment within the punishment provided for in the penal code for such specified offences can only be exercised by the high court and in the event of further appeal only by the Supreme Court and not by any other court in this country.

To put it differently, the power to impose a modified punishment providing for any specific term of incarceration or till the end of the convict’s life as an alternative to death penalty can be exercised only by the high court and the Supreme Court and not by any other inferior court,” the judgment had observed.

On the factual matrix, it was also argued that the appellant-offender has undergone a sentence of approximately 17 years and two months, and that he has no antecedents and does not pose a threat to society.

Moreover, his conduct in jail has been satisfactory, and he had completed a bachelor’s degree while in jail.

The Government of Karnataka contended that a Constitutional court’s power to grant a modified sentence could not be circumscribed by holding that the said power can only be exercised when the question of commuting a death sentence is concerned.

It argued that the Constitutional court is not powerless to impose a modified sentence considering the gravity of the offence, the conduct of the accused and other relevant factors, even though the death penalty had not been imposed.

Supreme Court’s ruling

The judgment, authored by Justice Oka, observed that the trial court, after having concluded that the case does not fall within the ‘rarest of rare’ category, can impose any other punishment specifically provided under Section 53 (punishments) of the IPC.

But it remarked, “[W]hen a Constitutional court finds that though a case is not falling in the category of ‘rarest of the rare’ case, considering the gravity and nature of the offence and all other relevant factors, it can always impose a fixed­ term sentence so that the benefit of statutory remission, etc. is not available to the accused.”

In the context of V. Sriharan alias Murugan, the court said, “The majority view… cannot be construed to mean that such a power cannot be exercised by the Constitutional courts unless the question is of commuting the death sentence.”

It clarified that the fixed term cannot be for a period of less than 14 years as per Section 53 read with Section 433A (restriction on powers of remission or commutation in certain cases) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

Further, it also noted that no antecedent of the accused is no consideration by itself for deciding whether the case falls within the category of ‘rarest of rare’.

In this context, the court stated: “The court, while considering the possibility of reformation of the accused, must note that showing undue leniency in such a brutal case will adversely affect the public confidence in the efficacy of the legal system. The court must consider the rights of the victim as well.”

Thus, considering all attending circumstances, the court decided to impose a special category of modified punishment, and sentenced the appellant-offender to a fixed term of thirty years, directing that he not be released before he completes an actual sentence of thirty years.

Click here to view the Supreme Court’s full judgment.