Probability of reformation cannot be ruled out: Supreme Court commutes death sentence of accused to life imprisonment for 30 years without remission

The judgment, authored by Justice C.T. Ravikumar, took into consideration that the accused did not have prior criminal antecedents, belonged to a poor socio-economic background and had unblemished conduct in the jail.

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ON Friday, the Supreme Court bench comprising Justices A.M Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheshwari and C.T Ravikumar in Veerendra versus State of Madhya Pradesh, commuted the death sentence of an accused to imprisonment for life and held, “It is true that all murders are inhuman. For imposing capital sentence, the crime must be uncommon in nature where even after taking into account the mitigating circumstances the Court must be of the opinion that the sentence of imprisonment for life is inadequate and there is no alternative but to impose death sentence.”

In the instant case, the appellant-accused raped and murdered an eight-years old victim. He was charged with various offences including murder under Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] along with Section 6 (aggravated penetrative sexual assault) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offence[POCSO] Act, 2012 by the trial court. He was awarded the death penalty for the offence under Section 302 and it was confirmed by the High Court of Madhya Pradesh at Gwalior on July 14, 2016.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider the appeal of the accused primarily on the ground that the conviction for murder was based on circumstantial evidence. The settled position of this court in Rajendra Pralhadrao Wasnik versus State of Maharashtra(2019) reflects that rarely death penalty has been awarded in a case where the connection of the accused with the offence is fixed on circumstantial evidence.

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Thus, this bench was faced two issues:

  1. Whether the conviction for murder sustainable as the medical evidence suggests that the victim died due to the injuries on the private part?

  2. Whether the intention to murder the victim can be attributed to the accused because her death occurred in the course of the commission of the alleged rape?

Determining the second issue, the Supreme Court stated that the death of the victim as per the medical examination was because of ‘Asphyxia due to throttling’. This along with the grave injuries sustained by the victim on her private parts, resulted in the trial court and the high court concluding that the death of the victim was homicidal in nature and also that these injuries were sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to cause death. Reaffirming that, the bench held that the opinion of the trial court and the high court were evidently concluded which does not require any interference from this court and observed, “In short, we have no hesitation to hold that the concurrent finding that the death of the victim was homicidal in nature invites no interference.”

On whether the homicidal death of the victim amounted to murder or not, the court said, “The right approach in cases of culpable homicide is to first find out whether the offence falls under any of the four clauses viz., clauses firstly to fourthly under Section 300 IPC. If it is so found, then the Court has to see whether the case is covered by any one of the five exceptions to section 300 IPC, which would make a culpable homicide ‘not amounting to murder.”

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Further, the Supreme Court bench in the instant case stated that intention is a subjective element and every sane person must be presumed to intend the result that his action normally produces. Thus, in the present case, the following observations were made on the second issue:

  1. Putting pressure on the neck of an 8 years old by fingers or palms by a young man aged 25 years, with such force to cause the injuries mentioned hereinbefore cannot be said to be without intention to take her life. 

  2. If the said act was subsequent to the commission of rape in the diabolic and gruesome manner revealed from the grave injuries sustained on her private parts, causing death alone can be inferred from the circumstances. 

  3. If the act of constricting the neck with such force resulting in the stated injuries preceded the offence of rape, then, the manner by which she was ravished should be taken only as an act done knowingly that it is so imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death or such bodily injury as is likely to cause death.

Thus, the court held that in any probability, the homicidal death of the victim falls within clause (1) or (4) of Section 300.

Lastly, on the issue of sustainability of the death penalty, the Supreme Court reiterated that the conditions of the ‘rarest of the rare cases’ test must be fulfilled. The test states that the accused must have become a threat to the society at large and beyond reformation and his elimination is the only way to eradicate the threat. This test was applied with the ‘crime test’ (Aggravating circumstance) and ‘criminal test’ (Mitigating circumstance) by the Supreme Court in Shankar Kisanrao Khade versus State of Maharashtra(2013).

The crime test requires consideration of the following circumstances namely, the prior record of conviction and the possibility of re-offending to name a few. The criminal test considers the manner and circumstances in which the crime was committed, the age of the accused, and the probability of reformation and rehabilitation to name a few.

These three tests fulfill the statutory requirement under Section 354(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which requires the judgment to give special reasons for awarding the death penalty.

Based on the above discussion, the Supreme Court ruled out this case to be within the category of the ‘rarest of the rare cases’ and held, “Hence, viewing the issue taking into account the aforesaid aspects, we do not find any reason to rule out the possibility and the probability of the reformation and rehabilitation of the appellant.” 

By also taking into consideration that the accused did not have prior criminal antecedents, belonged to a poor socio-economic background and had unblemished conduct in the jail, the Supreme court awarded life imprisonment to him but without application of the provisions of premature release/remission for the initial 30 years of imprisonment.

Click here to read the judgment.