SC commutes death sentence of accused in a rape and murder case to 30-year life imprisonment without remission

A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, on Wednesday, commuted the death sentence awarded to a man convicted for the rape and murder of a minor girl after observing that the petitioner had no criminal antecedents, came from a very poor socio-economic background, had a family comprising a wife, children and an aged father, and had unblemished jail conduct.

Justice Dinesh Maheswari, who authored the judgment for a bench which also comprised Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and C.T. Ravikumar, said there was nothing on record to rule out the probability of reformation and rehabilitation of the convict and thus it would be unsafe to treat this case as falling in the ‘rarest of rare’ category.

“When the appellant is not shown to be a person having criminal antecedents and is not a hardened criminal, it cannot be said that there is no probability of him being reformed and rehabilitated. His unblemished jail conduct and having a family of wife, children and aged father would also indicate towards the probability of his reformation”, the bench opined.

The bench directed that commutation of death sentence into the imprisonment of life would not entitle the petitioner for premature release or remission before undergoing actual imprisonment for a period of 30 years. Besides, it directed that all the substantive sentences awarded to the petitioner would run concurrently.

On the death sentence, the bench opined that both the trial court as also the High Court had taken the abhorrent nature of the crime alone to be the decisive factor for awarding death sentence. It added that the trial court order did not indicate if the appellant was extended reasonable opportunity to make out a case of mitigating circumstances by bringing relevant material on record.

“The sentencing order also fails to satisfy if the Trial Court consciously pondered over the mitigating factors before finding it to be a ‘rarest of rare’ case. The approach of the Trial Court had been that the accused-appellant was about 33-34 years of age at the time of occurrence and was supposed to be sensible. The Trial Court would observe that ‘if such heinous crime is committed by him, it is not justifiable to show any sort of mercy in the punishment.’ The High Court though has made rather intense comments on the menace of rape and brutal murder of children as also on the society’s abhorrence of such crime, but has, thereafter, proceeded to confirm the death sentence with a cursory observation that there were no substantial mitigating factors and the aggravating circumstances were aplenty. In other words, the impugned orders awarding and confirming death sentence could only be said to be of assumptive conclusions, where it has been assumed that death sentence has to be awarded because of the ghastly crime and its abhorrent nature”, the Supreme Court said.

The bench was ruling on an appeal filed by one Pappu against the decision of the Allahabad High Court on October 6, 2017, when it affirmed the judgment of the Additional Sessions Judge [ASJ], Kushinagar, which convicted the accused of offences punishable under Sections 376 (punishment for rape), 302 (punishment for murder), and 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence, or giving false information to screen offender) of the Indian Penal Code [IPC], and Section 5/6 (punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 [POCSO Act]. The ASJ had also awarded the death sentence to the accused of the offence under 302 IPC, which on the reference was affirmed by the High Court.

Appreciating the evidence, the Supreme Court rejected the arguments of the accused on the findings recorded by the Trial Court as well as the High Court on the guilt of the accused. It held that it did not find infirmity in the finding that the deceased was lastly seen in the company of the accused.

It thus upheld the conviction of the accused for the offences under sections 376, 302, and 201 of IPC and section 5/6 of POCSO, and the sentence awarded to him, except the death sentence for the offence under Section 302 IPC.

Click here to read the Supreme Court’s judgment.