Stating that “delay is a ground for commuting death penalty to life sentence”, the Supreme Court, in a landmark verdict on Tuesday, commuted the death penalty of 15 convicts. The court ruled that mental illness and solitary confinement can also be reasons for commuting death sentence.
“…Undue, inordinate and unreasonable delay in execution of death sentence does certainly attribute to torture which indeed is in violation of Article 21 and thereby entails as the ground for commutation of sentence,” said the three-Judge Bench of Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh.
The Bench also held that the right to seek mercy under Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution is a constitutional right “not at the discretion or whims of the executive”, and there cannot be any distinction based on whether a person on death row was convicted on charges of terror or otherwise while entertaining their petition.
With this verdict, the SC overruled its own ruling in Khalistani terrorist Devinderpal Singh Bhullar’s case in which it had held that delay in deciding a mercy plea cannot be ground for commuting death sentence.
The 15 convicts had challenged their death sentences on the grounds of delay by the President in deciding their mercy pleas and mental illness. Among those who have been granted relief are four aides of slain sandalwood smuggler Veerappan — Meesekar Madaiah, Gnanaprakash, Simon and Bilavendran — and Haryana couple Sonia and Sanjiv, who were sentenced to death for killing 13 of their relatives.
Framing guidelines for disposal of mercy petitions and execution of death sentences, the Bench ruled that convicts who are sentenced to death must be informed about the rejection of their mercy pleas and should be given a chance to meet their family members before they are executed. It ordered that execution of death sentence should be carried out within 14 days after rejection of their mercy plea.
Solitary confinement of a prisoner, including a death row convict, was held to be unconstitutional.
In its 154-page verdict, the Bench ruled that if a death row convict files a mercy petition to the Governor or President after completion of the judicial process “it is incumbent on the authorities to dispose of the same expeditiously.”
“Though no time limit can be fixed for the Governor and the President, it is the duty of the executive to expedite the matter at every stage, viz., calling for the records, orders and documents filed in the court, preparation of the note for approval of the minister concerned, and the ultimate decision of the constitutional authorities,” it said.
The Bench also ruled that “keeping a convict in suspense during consideration of his mercy petition by the President for many years is certainly an agony for him/ her… It creates adverse physical conditions and psychological stresses on the convict under sentence of death.” It took note of the fact that “mercy petitions were disposed of more expeditiously in former days than in the present times”.
According to data tabled by the government in parliament, there are 477 death row convicts as of December 2012. These include three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and Bhullar who was convicted in a 1993 Delhi blast case.