The first comprehensive study of the socio-economic profile of prisoners serving the death sentence in India has revealed that most are from economically vulnerable sections, backward communities and religious minority groups.
The Death Penalty Research Project, undertaken by researchers at the National Law University in Delhi, found that over 80 per cent of prisoners facing capital punishment had not completed school and nearly half had begun working before the age of 18.
Besides, it found, a quarter of the convicts were either juveniles or between the age of 18 and 21 or above 60 years when the crime was committed. Dalits and Adivasis constituted 24.5 per cent (90 prisoners) among those on death row, whom the study gained access to, while members of religious minorities were over 20 per cent (76 prisoners).
The two-volume report, based on a study conducted from July 2013-January 2015, was released on Friday by the law university at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
Speaking on the occasion, Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur said: “There is a huge problem with our criminal justice system. It not only needs procedural reforms but also substantive reform. Legal aid in India is nothing but a joke… nobody has faith in the legal aid system. I don’t think we have a jurisprudence philosophy on imposing death penalty, whether it is a deterrent, reformation or retribution.”
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Justice Lokur added that he was “optimistic” that “reports like this can make a huge difference”.
The report has revealed major structural flaws in the criminal justice system, including access to legal services. For instance, less than five per cent of death sentences awarded by trial courts between 2000 and 2015 were confirmed by the Supreme Court. In a total of 1,486 cases, only 73 persons were on death row at the end of the appeal process.
According to the report, the trials of 127 prisoners (34 per cent) of the 373 interviewed lasted more than five years while those of 54 (14.4 per cent) continued for more than 10 years.
The purpose of the study was to develop a “body of knowledge that will enable us to have a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the manner in which the death penalty is administered in India”.
Said Anup Surendranath, lead author of the study: “The report demonstrates that we rely on a completely broken criminal justice system to administer the death penalty in this country… the real question in this context is whether we should be relying on such a criminal justice to administer a punishment like the death penalty.”
Surendranath added: “It is evident from our study that burdens imposed by our criminal justice system while handing out death sentences are incapable of being met by the economically and socially vulnerable sections. As a result, you see the death penalty disproportionately affecting those who have the least capabilities to negotiate the criminal justice system.”
Besides generating a large body of data regarding the socio-economic status of the prisoners, the nature of their crimes and the legal process, the study also documented the experiences of prisoners during the trial process.
The findings are significant because the study claims there are no official records maintained by any ministry or agency — even about the total number of prisoners India has executed since independence.
The researchers were able to gain access to 373 of the 385 prisoners, including 12 women, who were serving death sentences during the period of the study. The Tamil Nadu government refused permission to interview 12 prisoners and of the 373, 17 could not be interviewed for various reasons.
The other key findings of the study include:
* Only 21 out of 276 prisoners (7.6%), about whom information regarding prior criminal history was available, had a prior criminal conviction.
* 18 convicts (5.8%) were less than 18 years old at the time of committing the crime while 54 (17%) were in the 18-21 age group.
* Of the 373, 12 had been sentenced to death for non-homicidal crimes, which did not lead to the loss of life, including charges of terrorism and rape.
* Murder and ‘murder with rape’ were the crimes for which 297 prisoners (213 and 84, respectively) were convicted while terror offences accounted for 31 cases.
The study also gives a state-wise break-up of the prisoners and the trial process, which reveal wide disparities:
* Gujarat: 79 per cent (15 prisoners) of those facing death sentence belong to religious minorities who make 12 per cent of the state’s population.
* Maharashtra: 50 per cent (18 prisoners) are Dalits and Adivasis, who form 20 per cent of the state’s population.
* Kerala: At 93 per cent (14 prisoners), it had the highest percentage of those sentenced to death from economically vulnerable communities.
The findings regarding legal aid are revealing:
* 64 per cent of prisoners had private lawyers at the trial stage but the trend shifted at the Supreme Court — only 30 per cent had private lawyers, the rest depended on legal aid lawyers or lawyers who had agreed to fight their cases pro bono.
* 70 per cent of the 258 prisoners who spoke to the research team about their interaction with trial court lawyers said they did not discuss case details. Prisoners and families seemed to harbour a fear of legal aid lawyers. Many sold their assets to engage private lawyers to represent them in trial courts.
* At the high court, 68.4 per cent of prisoners never interacted with or even met their lawyers.
* 44 per cent of prisoners whose cases reached Supreme Court did not know the names of the lawyers who were representing them.
* 90 per cent of 189 prisoners who spoke to the team said they did not have a lawyer when they were first produced before the magistrate.
(With inputs from Kaunain Sheriff M)