Supreme Court quashes death sentence; sets convict free after finding he was a juvenile at the time of the crime

While interpreting provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, the court held that the intention of the legislature behind the enactment was to give benefit to a person who is declared to be a child on the date of the offence only with respect to its sentence part. 

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THE Supreme Court on Friday quashed the death sentence imposed on a convict after it found him to be a juvenile at the time of the offence. A bench comprising Justices B.R. Gavai, Vikram Nath and Sanjay Karol upheld the conviction of the offender, but set aside the sentence while directing the release of the convict forthwith.

The conviction of the appellant is upheld; however, the sentence is set aside. Further as the appellant at present would be more than 20 years old, there would be no requirement of sending him to the [Juvenile Justice Board] or any other child care facility or institution“, Justice Nath said in a judgment for the bench.

The appellant, Karan alias Fatiya, was convicted for offences under Sections 363 (punishment for kidnapping) and 376(2)(i) (rape on a woman incapable of giving consent) of the Indian Penal Code, Sections 5(m)/6 (punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, and Sections 302 (punishment for murder) and 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence, or giving false information to screen offender) of the code.

He was sentenced to death by a trial court on May 17, 2018, which was affirmed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court on November 11, 2018. He had been under incarceration since December 2017.

During the pendency of his appeal at the Supreme Court, Fatiya filed an application claiming juvenility under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. The Supreme Court directed the trial court to examine the claim of juvenility and submit a report to it.

The report submitted by the trial court concluded that Fatiya’s date of birth was July 25, 2002.  The date of the incident being December 15, 2017, he was 15 years, four months and 20 days of age on the date of the offence.

The bench accepted the report of the trial court on the juvenility of Fatiya. It rejected the request of the state government seeking an ossification test of the accused. It opined that the state government did not make any objection whatsoever with regard to the documents filed on behalf of the appellant and the evidence led on behalf of the appellant, so much so that it did not even cross-examine the witnesses who were examined in the inquiry. Besides, it observed that an ossification test will only give a broad assessment of the age.

[An ossification test] cannot give an exact age. There is also an element of margin of plus or minus one to two years. Even if we permit the said test, it does not lead us anywhere. It will have no bearing on the assessment made by the trial court after the inquiry,” the bench ruled.

It held that a birth certificate from the school — that too a government primary school — was available, and thus there was no reason for it to doubt the correctness of the birth certificate,  all the more when the same had been duly proved in the inquiry before the trial court.

Interestingly, while interpreting the provisions of the 2015 Act, in particular, Section 9 (procedure to be followed by a magistrate who has not been empowered under this Act), the bench held that the intention of the legislature was to give benefit to a person who is declared to be a child on the date of the offence “only with respect to its sentence part”.

If the conviction was also to be made ineffective then either the jurisdiction of regular sessions court would have been completely excluded not only under Section 9 of the 2015 Act but also under Section 25 of the 2015 Act, provision would have been made that on a finding being recorded that the person being tried is a child, a pending trial should also be relegated to the [Juvenile Justice Board] and also that such trial would be held to be null and void,” the bench highlighted.

It added that under Section 25 of the 2015 Act, it is clearly provided that any proceeding pending before any board or court on the date of commencement of the 2015 Act shall be continued in that board or court as if the Act had not been enacted.

The bench thus ruled that the conviction which was recorded cannot be held to be vitiated in law merely because the inquiry was not conducted by the Juvenile Justice Board, adding that it was only the question of sentence for which the provisions of the 2015 Act would be attracted, and any sentence in excess of what was permissible under the 2015 Act would have to be accordingly amended as per the provisions of the 2015 Act.

Otherwise, the accused who has committed a heinous offence and who did not claim juvenility before the trial court would be allowed to go scot-free. This is also not the object and intention provided in the 2015 Act. The object under the 2015 Act dealing with the rights and liberties of the juvenile is only to ensure that if he or she could be brought into the mainstream by awarding lesser sentence and also directing for other facilities for welfare of the juvenile in conflict with law during his stay in any of the institutions defined under the 2015 Act,” the bench concluded.

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

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