Sunday, April 21, 2013

Is 14 years imprisonment an alternative to death penalty? SC asks

Dhananjay Mahapatra,TNN | Apr 20, 2013
NEW DELHI: Is life sentence, which generally translates to 14 years in prison, a good alternative to death penalty in heinous and gruesome murders which fall just short of being categorized 'rarest of rare" to invite the extreme punishment?

This question from the Supreme Court related to those cases where trial courts impose death penalty but higher courts, after scrutinizing the evidence afresh, find that the case falls just short of being bracketed under 'rarest of rare' category not warranting award of capital punishment.

A bench of Justices P Sathasivam and M Y Eqbal was confronted with this question in the case where one Sahib Hussain was found guilty of murdering five persons and was awarded death penalty by a Rajasthan court. The high court commuted the death penalty to life imprisonment with a rider that it would not be less than 20 years in prison.

Justice Sathasivam, writing the judgment for the bench, upheld the 20-year sentence but found that in a recent judgment (Sangeet vs Haryana), the SC had criticized award of sentences ranging between 20 years and 35 years in gruesome murder cases which fell outside the purview of 'rarest of rare' tag by a whisker.

In that judgment, the apex court had said it was impermissible for courts to limit the power of the government to grant parole or remission to convicts sentenced to life. In most cases of life imprisonment, convicts, on showing good conduct, get entitled to remission and are let out after spending 14 years in jail.

The bench of Justices Sathasivam and Eqbal said the judgment criticizing higher courts for awarding sentences ranging between 20 years and 35 years as an alternative to death penalty was unwarranted, given the fact that state governments had granted remission without adequate reasons or even on flimsy grounds.

"It is clear that since more than a decade, in many cases, whenever death sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment where the offence alleged is serious in nature, while awarding life imprisonment, this court reiterated minimum years of imprisonment of 20 years or 25 years or 30 years or 35 years, mentioning thereby, if the appropriate government wants to give remission, the same has to be considered only after the expiry of the said period," the bench said.

The bench supported its reasoning with the Swami Shradhananda judgment, in which the apex court in 2008 had said, "When an appellant comes to this court carrying a death sentence awarded by the trial court and confirmed by the high court, this court may find that the case just falls short of the rarest of rare category and may feel somewhat reluctant in endorsing the death sentence.

"But at the same time, having regard to the nature of the crime, the court may strongly feel that a sentence of life imprisonment subject to remission normally works out to a term of 14 years and would be grossly inadequate."

It had further said, "What then should the court do? If the court's option is limited only to two punishments, one a sentence of imprisonment, for all intents and purposes of not more than 14 years, and the other death, the court may feel tempted to find itself nudged into endorsing the death penalty. Such a course would be disastrous.

"A far more just, reasonable and proper course would be to expand the options and to take over what, as a matter of fact, lawfully belongs to the court, that is the vast hiatus between 14 years' imprisonment and death. It needs to be emphasized that the court would take recourse to the expanded option primarily because in the facts of the case, the sentence of 14 years imprisonment would amount to no punishment at all." The court had ordered that Shradhananda would not be released from jail.

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