In the US, where police investigation is generally an efficient and fair process, and corruption is low, 165 convicts on death row have been exonerated before their execution since 1973. This is one of the reasons why, until the date set for execution, convicts are allowed to seek remedy — the death sentence is irreversible, and no room for error should remain. However, as the December 16 rape and murder case draws closer to the date of execution, the Centre has asked the Supreme Court to set short deadlines for convicts to seek legal remedy, limiting the time for filing curative petitions. And in the course of hearing review petitions in another matter which has attracted the death penalty, Chief Justice of India Sharad A Bobde observed that capital punishment must reach finality, and the condemned cannot be allowed to contest it indefinitely.
Really, what’s the hurry? The death penalty is awarded in the rarest of rare cases, a minuscule fraction of the business of the courts. Hastening the process would scarcely improve the justice system. Of course, the impatience of the court and the government is not unprovoked. In cases attracting more than one death sentence, it is indeed a common stratagem for convicts to file petitions in turn, as a dilatory tactic. But delaying tactics are par for the course in a legal system where counsels are gauged by their ability to secure adjournments, using delay as a weapon to wear down the other side even in routine civil matters. If efficiency in disposal is sought, it should apply across the board, and not only to cases which result in a death penalty. Indeed, the heinousness of the crime only dictates the modicum of the response of the law, and not the despatch with which the sentence is carried out.
Besides, in this case, it appears that the government is seeking tighter deadlines in the light of an extremely emotive case, which agitated civil society and triggered political mobilisation. But such a change in guidelines should be sought only when justice is seen to have not been done in a number of cases. If change is actuated by a single matter, it runs the risk of appearing to be a primitive quest for retributive justice, devaluing the system.
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