On Friday, the Apex Court of India in "Manoj and ors v. State of Madhya Pradesh", noted that courts need to exercise restraint when balancing public opinion with the facts of the case. As a result, the court commutated the death sentences of three murder convicts to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 25 years.
It was decided by a three-judge bench consisting of Justices UU Lalit, S Ravindra Bhat, and Bela M Trivedi that an examination of the mitigating circumstances of such cases must be carried out liberally and expansively, even in cases involving brutal crimes. This decision was based on the test that was laid out in the "Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)" case. It held that,
"There is urgent need to ensure that mitigating circumstances are considered at the trial stage, to avoid slipping into a retributive response to the brutality of the crime, as is noticeably the situation in a majority of cases reaching the appellate stage."
The Bench has issued guidelines in this regard and stated that it has been held that public opinion towards a cruel crime is not an objective circumstance relating to the crime or the criminals.
The highest court was hearing appeals against a judgement that was handed down in 2014 by the Madhya Pradesh High Court. In that ruling, the Madhya Pradesh High Court upheld a verdict from a Sessions Court that found the present appellants guilty of murder and sentenced them to death. The three were convicted of murdering three women during the course of a robbery in Indore, in 2011.
On concluding that the capital punishment imposed was unwarranted and while commuting it to life imprisonment, the Supreme Court observed that,
"While there is no doubt that this case captured the attention and indignation of the society in Indore, and perhaps the state of Madhya Pradesh, as a cruel crime that raised alarm regarding safety within the community – it must be remembered that public opinion has categorically been held to be neither an objective circumstance relating to crime, nor the criminal, and the courts must exercise judicial restraint and play a balancing role."
The Court essentially noted the delay between the trial and the hearing of their appeals before the High Court to hold that the conduct of the accused in custody should have been considered as a mitigating circumstance.
Over the years, while discussing a multitude of precedents and Law Commission reports, the Bench opined its anguish at the fact that the test in Bachan Singh was not being consistently applied.
The Court held that,
"However, despite over four decades since Bachan Singh there has been little to no policy-driven change, towards formulating a scheme or system that elaborates how mitigating circumstances are to be collected, for the court’s consideration. Scarce information about the accused at the time of sentencing, severely disadvantages the process of considering mitigating circumstances. It is clarified that mere mention of these circumstances by counsel, serve no purpose – rather, they must be connected to the possibility of reformation and assist principled judicial reasoning (as required under S. 235(2) CrPC)."
It was emphasised that good prison conduct and psychological evaluations are crucial indicators for evaluating mitigating circumstances in instances involving the death penalty. Noting the paucity of information about the collection of mitigating circumstances, the bench said that,
"The lack of forthcoming information has led to attempts by the courts, to look backwards – sometimes many years after the crime has been committed – to evaluate on the one hand, circumstances that could not have been paused in time, and on the other those which can be captured, but for which there exists no frame of reference from the past, for comparison. This inconsistency in some courts calling for reports, while others fail to – further contributes to our patchwork jurisprudence on capital sentencing, and in turn undermines the equality principle and due process protection...in favour of death row convicts."
Noting the absence of a concrete framework for measuring and evaluating the possibility of reformation for all prisoners, the Court stated that,
"Unfortunately, this is mirrored by the failure to implement prison reforms of a meaningful kind, which has left the process of incarceration and prisons in general, to be a space of limited potential for systemic reformation. The goal of reformative punishment requires systems that actively enable reformation and rehabilitation, as a result of nuanced policy making."
Accordingly, the decision outlined the following guidelines to be applied equally in cases of conviction for crimes punishable by death:
- There is an urgent need to ensure that mitigating circumstances are considered at the trial stage. The trial court must elicit information from the accused and the State, both. The State must - for an offence carrying capital punishment - at the appropriate stage, produce material which is preferably collected beforehand, before the Sessions Court disclosing psychiatric and psychological evaluation of the accused. This would help establish proximity (in terms of timeline), to the accused person’s frame of mind (or mental illness, if any) at the time of committing the crime and the evaluation would provide a baseline for the appellate courts to use for comparison, i.e., to evaluate the progress of the accused towards reformation, achieved during the incarceration period.
- The State, must in a time-bound manner, collect additional information pertaining to the accused on the following: a) Age b) Early family background (siblings, protection of parents, any history of violence or neglect) c) Present family background (surviving family members, whether married, has children, etc.) d) Type and level of education e) Socio-economic background (including conditions of poverty or deprivation, if any) f) Criminal antecedents (details of offence and whether convicted, sentence served, if any) g) Income and the kind of employment (whether none, or temporary or permanent etc); h) Other factors such as history of unstable social behaviour, or mental or psychological ailment(s), alienation of the individual (with reasons, if any) etc. This information should mandatorily be available to the trial court, at the sentencing stage. The accused too, should be given the same opportunity to produce evidence in rebuttal, towards establishing all mitigating circumstances.
- Information regarding the accused’s jail conduct and behaviour, work done (if any), activities the accused has involved themselves in, and other related details should be called for in the form of a report from the relevant jail authorities (i.e., probation and welfare officer, superintendent of jail, etc.). If the appeal is heard after a long hiatus from the trial court’s conviction, or High Court’s confirmation, as the case may be – a fresh report (rather than the one used by the previous court) from the jail authorities is recommended, for an more exact and complete understanding of the contemporaneous progress made by the accused, in the time elapsed. The jail authorities must also include a fresh psychiatric and psychological report which will further evidence the reformative progress, and reveal post-conviction mental illness, if any.
In addition, it was emphasised that criminal courts can and must request additional information about mitigating circumstances at all stages.
Regarding the current appellants' request for a lenient sentence and their contention that the lower courts denied them the opportunity to make a case for it, the Supreme Court noted that all three had presented material on record regarding their circumstances.
An individualised approach, as opposed to a collective one, was required for their sentencing. The Court held that,
"Swayed by the brutality of the crime and “shock of the collective and judicial conscience”, the High Court affirmed imposition of the death penalty solely on the basis of the aggravating circumstances of the crime, with negligible consideration of mitigating circumstances of the criminal. This is in direct contravention of Bachan Singh."
The supreme court decided that the crime was heinous, cruel as well as vicious. However, while commuting their sentences, the three-judge bench declared that the possibility of life imprisonment was certainly not foreclosed in the matter.
The bench said that,
"The reports received from the Superintendent of Jail reflect that each of the three accused, have a record of overall good conduct in prison and display inclination to reform. It is evident that they have already, while in prison, taken steps towards bettering their lives and of those around them, which coupled with their young age unequivocally demonstrates that there is in fact, a probability of reform."
On the basis of these grounds, the Court determined that the death sentence imposed on Manoj, Rahul, and Neha was unwarranted and commuted their sentences to life imprisonment.
Senior Counsel Anjana Prakash and Advocate Shri Singh appeared pro bono (free of charge) for the appellants who were convicted. Additional Advocate General Swarupama Chaturvedi represented Madhya Pradesh in court.