Severe mental illness post-conviction a mitigating factor while sentencing an accused to death, says Supreme Court

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE Supreme Court of India has held that severe mental illness following a conviction will be a mitigating factor that an appellate court will need to consider while sentencing an accused to death.

Issuing a set of directions on a review petition filed by a prisoner on death row, a three-judge bench comprising Justices N V Ramana, Mohan M Shantanagoudar and Indira Banerjee on April 12, 2019 further said the mental health assessment of the convict would need to be conducted by a multi­disciplinary team of qualified professionals (experienced medical practitioners, criminologists etc), including a professional with expertise in the accused’s particular mental illness, before a decision on the death penalty could be taken.

The other directions that were laid out included:

  1. The burden would be on the accused to prove by a preponderance of clear evidence that they were suffering from severe mental illness. The accused had to demonstrate active, residual or prodromal symptoms, that the severe mental disability was manifesting;
  2. The State could offer evidence to rebut such claim;
  3. The court in appropriate cases could set up a panel to submit an expert report; and
  4. The ‘test of severity’ predicated that the offender needed to have a severe mental illness or disability, or in other words the illness needed to be so severe that the accused was unable to comprehend the nature and purpose behind the imposition of the penalty.

These directions are the result of a review petition that was filed by a death convict X (name withheld by the court) seeking to reopen his case in which the Supreme Court had confirmed his death sentence under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The accused X was also sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment each under Sections 201 and 363 and 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment under Section 376 of the IPC. He had been accused of committing the rape and murder of two girls.

Commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment, the court noted that the accused had been experiencing bouts of some form of mental irritability since 1994, as apparent from the records placed before the court. He had also suffered long incarceration as a death row convict.

“… we cannot lose sight of the fact that a sentence of life imprisonment simpliciter would be grossly inadequate in the instant case. Given the barbaric and brutal manner of commission of the crime, the gravity of the offence itself, the abuse of the victims’ trust by the petitioner, and his tendency to commit such offences as is evident from his past conduct, it is extremely clear that the petitioner poses such a grave threat to society that he cannot be allowed to roam free at any point whatsoever. In this view of the matter, we deem it fit to direct that the petitioner shall remain in prison for the remainder of his life”, the Supreme Court said.

The right to dignity of an accused does not dry out with the judges’ ink, the court further said; rather, it subsists well beyond the prison gates and operates until his last breath. In the context of mentally ill prisoners, the Court said that Section 20 (1) of the Mental Health Care Act, 2017, explicitly provides that ‘every person with mental illness shall have a right to live with dignity’.

In line with Section 23 (1) of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, and the right to privacy of the accused in the present case, the court directed the Registry not to disclose the actual name of the accused and other pertinent information which could lead to his identification.


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