LAndmark judgmentS



i. T.V Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1983) 2 SCC 68

Type: Criminal Appeal No. 75 of 1983
Coram: O. Chinnappa Reddy, R.B Mishra, JJ.
Author: O. Chinnappa Reddy, J.
Decided on: February 16, 1983

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The appellant was given the death sentence as he was the main accused for conspiring and murdering several persons by impersonating a customs officer, abducting them under the guise of interrogation to rob and murder them. He was kept in solitary confinement for eight years and the appeal was that it the delay in execution violated Art. 21.

Art 21- Procedure established under law includes carrying out of sentence imposed. Prolonged delay in execution- irrespective of cause- has a dehumanizing effect which violates Art 21 by unjustly depriving a person of his life and liberty. Allowing for the time to complete appellate procedures, delay beyond two year entitles quashing of death sentence.

Overruled in Triveniben v State of Gujrat (1989) 1 SCC 678. Clarified as being only partly overruled only on the two year rule in Shatrughan Chauhan v Union of India (2014) 3 SCC 1; affirmed on all other propositions in Ajay Kumar Pal v Union of India (2015) 2 SCC 478.

ii. Triveniben v. State of Gujrat and Ors. (1989) 1 SCC 678

Type: Writ Petition [(Criminal) No. 1566 of 1985]
Coram: G.L. Oza, K. Jagannatha Shetty, K.N. Singh, L.M. Sharma and M.M. Dutt, JJ.
Author: G.L. Oza and K. Jagannatha Shetty, JJ.
Decided on: February 7, 1989

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The appellant was given the death sentence as he was the main accused for conspiring and murdering several persons by impersonating a customs officer, abducting them under the guise of interrogation to rob and murder them. He was kept in solitary confinement for eight years and the appeal was that it the delay in execution violated Art. 21.
Art 21- Procedure established under law includes carrying out of sentence imposed. Prolonged delay in execution- irrespective of cause- has a dehumanizing effect which violates Art 21 by unjustly depriving a person of his life and liberty. Allowing for the time to complete appellate procedures, delay beyond two year entitles quashing of death sentence.

The Rarest of Rare Doctrine

i. Pre Bachan Singh

1. Rajendra Prasad v. State of Uttar Pradesh

Citation: AIR 1979 SC 916
Type: Criminal Appeal (No. 512- 513 of 1978)
Coram: A.N Sen, D.A Desai and V.R Krishna Iyer, JJ
Author: V.R Krishna Iyer, J. - majority opinion and A.N Sen, J. – (minority opinion)
Decided on: February 9, 1979

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The appellant had earlier been given life sentence for murder and had been granted pardon; on his release he again committed murder. The case came up as a criminal appeal and the Court was to determine whether the case qualified as having ‘special reasons’ required under the CrPC to impose death sentence.

Art 21- To hold that the discretion is ruled by well recognized principles alone is not sufficient. It must be further demarcated what these principles are so that the practice of the discretion does not militate against Art 21’s mandate of fair and non-arbitrary procedures. Special reasons for giving death sentence cannot pertain only to the crime but must account for human rights and the fundamental freedoms given in the Constitution. The reasons must show why life sentence would not suffice. Since taking life destroys the dignity of a person, the reasons must show why such a drastic step is justified, consequently, it can only be in exceptional circumstances that such a step must be taken.

Art 19- The death sentence abrogates the fundamental freedoms guaranteed u/a 19 and therefore the exercise of the discretionary power to impose the death sentence must show that such a sentence is a reasonable restriction otherwise it would be violative of the Constitution.

One of the tests is to determine if the person poses a traumatic threat to the survival of the social order. The compelling reason to impose the death sentence must arise from a threat posed by the person to social justice and where the peril to social security is to such an extent that extinction of such a person becomes essential for the survival of society.

Overruled in Sunder Singh v State of Uttaranchal (1980) 2 SCC 684 in light of the standard laid down in Bachan Singh. Distinguished in Devender Pal Singh Bhullar v State (NCT of Delhi) (2013) 6 SCC 195 on facts.

2 Ediga Anamma v. State of Andhra Pradesh

Citation:(1974) 4 SCC 443
Type: Criminal Appeal (No. 67 of 1973)
Coram: VR Krishna Iyer and R.S Sarkaria, JJ.
Author: VR Krishna Iyer, J.
Decided on: February 11, 1974

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The appellant was the mistress of the victim. She murdered him and his child out of jealousy due to his infidelity to her. The murder was gruesome and she had disfigured and burnt the bodies before burying them. The question was whether this was a fit case for the exercise of judicial discretion in imposing the death sentence.

The decision of the court focused on penology and the understanding that the crime and the crime are equally important. Since crime and punishment are functionally related to society, the prevailing societal conditions must be taken into consideration. The focus of the punishment should be balanced between the society and the individual, i.e., the deterrent element of punishment must be balanced with the possibility of reformation of the individual.

Factors such as the socio-economic conditions of the criminal, age, psychic or penal compulsions and other general pressures or delays in execution of sentence of death (where applicable) may all be reasons for judicial compassion in sentencing, even though these may not affect the determination of culpability.

ii. Post Bachan Singh

1. Machhi Singh and Ors. State of Punjab

Citation:(1983) 3 SCC 470
Type: Criminal Appeal (No. 78-79, 80-84, 85-86, 87, 88-89 of 1981 and 419 of 1982)
Coram: M.P. Thakkar, A. Varadarajan and Syed Murtaza Fazalali, JJ.
Author: M.P. Thakkar, J.
Decided on: July 20, 1983

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17 members of a family were murdered due to an on-going feud between two families. Death sentence was given to the appellants by the Trial Court and the sentence was confirmed by the High Court. In appeal before the Supreme Court, the question was whether the case satisfied the standard of ‘rarest of the rare’ laid down in Bachan Singh.

In assessing the various aggravating and mitigating circumstances as per Bachan Singh, the Court held that there may be circumstances (based on the depravity of the crime, crimes committed against minority communities or those which are of a nature arousing social wrath, power relations between the offender and the victim etc) where the collective conscience of the society is so shocked that it mandates the imposition of the death sentence.

2. Ravji alias Ram Chandra v. State of Rajasthan

Citation: 1996 (2) SCC 175
Type: Criminal Appeal (No. 1595 of 1995)
Coram: VR Krishna Iyer and R.S Sarkaria, JJ.
Author: G.N. Ray, J.
Decided on: December 5, 1995

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The appellant was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and three minor children and a neighbour. The lower courts held it to be a cold-blooded and premeditated murder which merited death. The Supreme Court had to decide whether the rarest of rare standard was met.

The Court applied the deterrent and retributive theories of punishment in this case. Looking at the facts and circumstances, the court held that the appellant had a duty to protect and care for his wife and children. The brutality and heinousness of the crime, without any provocation, was sufficient to merit death. The Court held that the nature and gravity of the offence and not the criminal were germane to the imposition of punishment.

Held to be per incuriam in Santosh Kumar Bariyar v State of Maharashtra (2009) 6 SCC 498 for non-consideration of the circumstances of the criminal, as required in Bachan Singh.

3. Swamy Shraddananda & Murali Manohar Mishra v. State of Karnataka

Citation: (2008) 13 SCC 767
Type: Criminal Appeal (No. 454 of 2006)

Coram: Aftab Alam, B.N. Agrawal and G.S. Singhvi, JJ.
Author: Aftab Alam, J.
Decided on: July 22, 2008

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The appellant was sentenced to death by both the trial court and the High Court. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the conviction was upheld by the Division Bench but they did not agree on the Punishment. While one judge thought that life imprisonment would suffice as it was not a case of rarest of the rare, the other judge was of the opinion that life imprisonment was insufficient as a sentence here since the remission powers of the executive effectively means that the sentence could be remitted after 14 years. On the question of sentence, the case was referred to a larger Bench.

The Court held that it was within the power of the Court to stipulate that in certain cases, life imprisonment would mean that the convict would not be released for the rest of his natural life. This special category would be in accordance with the rarest of rare standard since the mere fact that life imprisonment as understood conventionally (allowing for remission) is not sufficient reason to impose the penalty of death on a person. The sentence of life given as a substitute for death would be strictly followed.

4. Santosh Kumar Satishbhushan Bariyar v. State of Maharashtra

Citation: 2009 (6) SCC 498
Type: Criminal Appeal Nos. 1478 of 2005 and Criminal Appeal No. 452 of 2006
Coram: S.B Sinha and Cyriac Joseph, JJ.
Author: S.B Sinha, J.
Decided on: May 13, 2009

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This was a case of kidnapping for ransom by four persons which lead to the murder of the person held hostage. The question before the Supreme Court was what weight should be given to mitigating circumstance while considering whether or not to impose the death penalty.

The sentence was reduced to one of rigorous imprisonment for life relying on the doctrine of proportionality and rehabilitation. The Court held that the principle of proportionality as generally understood cannot be applied since the judicial discretion to impose the death sentence has to be read in conjunction with Art 21. The standard laid down in Bachan Singh and Machi Singh should be seen as an extension of the constitutional scheme. The emphasis is on rehabilitation and the understanding is that life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is the exception. Therefore, even though all mitigating circumstance may not have equal value, since Bachan Singh has laid a positive duty on the State to show that there is no possibility of reform or rehabilitation, it must be given due consideration by courts before exercising its discretion. Art 14- Equal protection applies to the sentencing stage and therefore there must be a pool of capital defendants equally circumstanced in respect of gravity, nature, motive, aspects relating to socio-economic conditions. Aggravating and mitigating circumstances have to be identified separately, but no such comparative review is required for the imposition of death.

Art 21- The sentencing process must find a rational and objective connection between capital punishment and its purpose and the special reasons should satisfy the comparative utility of giving death over life imprisonment.

5. Sangeet v. State of Haryana

Citation: (2013) 2 SCC 452
Type: Criminal Appeal Nos. 490-491 of 2011
Coram: K.S Radhakrishnan and Madan B. Lokur, JJ.
Author:Madan B. Lokur, J.
Decided on: November 20, 2012

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There were multiple accused who were convicted for various offences under the IPC (including murder) and the Arms Act. The Supreme Court had to consider whether the case fell in the category of rarest of rare.

The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The court observed that the aggravating circumstances pertained to the crime while mitigating circumstance referred to the criminal. Both are distinct elements which cannot be compared. Further, though Bachan Singh sought to shift the focus from the crime to the crime and the criminal, the notion of principled sentencing hasn’t taken root and the circumstances of the criminal seems to have taken a backseat. Machi Singh tried to standardize the procedure but the effect has been that sentencing has become judge centric and is not being applied uniformly. In light of this, the Court held that where there is considerable uncertainty as to propriety of punishment, awarding of life imprisonment does not stand unquestionably foreclosed. Moreover, when there are inconsistencies in evidence then the death sentence must not be imposed, even if the evidence is held to be sufficiently proved to convict.

Nature of President's Power Under Article 72

i. Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India 2014 (3) SCC 1

Citation: 2014 (3) SCC 1
Type: Writ Petition [(Criminal) No. 55 of 2013]
Coram: P.Sathashivam, CJ, Ranjan Gogoi, and Shiva Kirti Singh, JJ.
Author: P.Sathashivam, J.
Decided on: January 21, 2014

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15 mercy petitions were rejected by the Governor and the President. These 15 inmates were in jail from a period ranging from 11 years to 1.5 years. This writ petition was filed in the SC claiming that the rejection was unconstitutional on the grounds of undue delay, mental illness and solitary confinement.

Art 21- The court was of the opinion that keeping the inmates in jail, waiting for their death is cruel and inhuman. Making a prisoner suffer waiting for his mercy petition to be answered demeans individual dignity. In this judgement the SC reaffirms that every individual has a right to live with dignity under the Constitutions, irrespective of the crime committed by him.

The Court rejected the reasoning in Devender Pal Singh Bhullar v. State (NCT) of Delhi, holding that delay in carrying out the death sentence was, indeed, one of the grounds for commutation. But such commutation cannot have a fixed formula and must be looked at case by case. Relying on Bachan Singh, the court said that including the mitigating factors stated in that case, delay is also an essential mitigating factor. Coming to the 15 prisoners, the court commuted the sentences as all of them were subject to unreasonable and unwarranted delay. In the end, the Court gave the following guidelines to dispose of mercy petitions and execute a prisoner:

  1. There should be no solitary confinement while the mercy petition is pending before the President.
  2. Free legal aid must be provided to death row convicts.
  3. All relevant materials must be made available to the President speedily and efficaciously.
  4. The rejection of the mercy petition must be communicated to the convict and his family in writing. This is a matter of right.
  5. A minimum of 14 days’ notice must be served.
  6. Regular physical and mental health check-ups for the convicts are required during their time in jail.
  7. The convict must be provided with all the necessary documents so that he has access to the most effective judicial remedy.
  8. A final meeting between the prisoner and his family and friends.
  9. Post mortem reports must be made for each executed prisoner

ii. Kehar Singh and Anr. v. Union of India and Anr.

Citation:1989 (1) SCC 204
Type: Writ Petition [(Crl) Nos. 526-527 of 1988]
Coram: R.S. Pathak, CJ, E.S. Venkataramiah, M.N. Venkatachaliah, N.D. Ojha and Ranganath Mishra, JJ.
Author: R.S. Pathak, J.
Decided on: December 16, 1988

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Kehar Singh was sentenced to death due to his role as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Indira Gandhi. His sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court, and subsequent review petition and writ petitions were dismissed. His son filed a mercy petition with the President which was also rejected, stating that the President could not go into the merits of a case decided by the Supreme Court. This was the question being considered here.

The Supreme Court held that the President was entitled to go into the merits of a case, while exercising his power of pardon, and his decision would not affect the judicial pronouncement since the executive power to pardon was entirely different from the judicial function of Courts. Irrespective of the grant of pardon or not the judicial record remains the same.

The Court also held that the exercise of power by the President was open to Judicial Review to a limited extent The Court cannot go into the merits of the decision taken by the President but can ensure that the decision-making process met with the procedural requirements and the principles laid down in the constitution.


i. Jag Mohan Singh v. State of UP

Citation: (1973 (1) SCC 20)
Type: Criminal Appeal (No. 173 of 1971)
Coram: S.M. Sikri, A.N. Ray, I.D. Dua, D.G. Palekar, M. Hameedullah Beg, JJ.
Author: D.Palekar, J.
Decided on: October 3, 1972

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This was a murder case which came up soon after the amendment of the Code of Criminal Procedure in 1973, wherein the imposition on the death penalty became subject to the discretion of the Court, and was no longer a mandatory sentence for murder. In this context, arguments were raised regarding the constitutionality of the death penalty on the ground that was too wide a discretion vested in courts since no standards or guidelines were available, and that it violated Articles 14,19 and 21.

Art 19- The Supreme Court held that the right to life was not a part of Art 19 and the death could not be called unreasonable or opposed to public policy since it was a punishment which had been part of the law even before the commencement and the legislature would be presumed to know of its existence. Since it was not removed, it could only be assumed that the legislature did not think of it as unreasonable. Art 14- Art 14 can hardly be invoked in matters of judicial discretion since exercise of discretion in each case would be peculiar to the facts and circumstances. The discretion given to courts is to impose the death penalty after balancing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and cannot be called unguided.

Art 21- The Code of Criminal Procedure lays down detailed procedure s to when death sentence can be imposed and the imposition of death sentence after all the requisites of a trial, following the procedure established by law cannot be called unconstitutional.

ii. Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab

Citation: (1980 (2) SCC 684) Type: Criminal Appeal (No. 273 of 1979)
Coram: Y.V. Chandrachud, C.J., P.N. Bhagwati, R.S. Sarkaria, A.C. Gupta, N.L. Untwalia, JJ.
Author: R.S. Sarkaria, J. (Majority Judgment)
Decided on: May 9, 1980

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A batch of Writ Petitions was filed in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of allowing the death penalty as an alternative punishment for murder.

The decision in Jagmohan was affirmed with some changes. The only significant change from Jagmohan to Bachan Singh was that the scope of Art 19 and 21 was expanded by interpretation given to these in Menaka Gandhi. Also, India had become a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Court held that this fact has no impact on the constitutionality of death penalty. The covenant did not outlaw death penalty.

Art 19- Art 19 can be invoked only when one of the freedoms mentioned in it are infringed. Since the right to life is not a part of Art 19, it cannot be invoked to determine the constitutionality of section 302 of the IPC which provides death penalty as an alternative punishment for murder. The death penalty can’t be called unconstitutional merely because it indirectly, incidentally or remotely affects the freedoms mentioned u/a 19. In answering whether the death penalty serves any penological purpose, the Court held that it would not be right to decide the issue judicially since it was a highly contested debate with strong divergent views on both sides.

The Court clarified Jagmohan and held that the mandatory requirement of a pre-sentencing hearing introduced in the CrPC made it necessary not only to consider the circumstances of the crime, but also that of the criminal.

Citation:(1982) 3 SCC 24 Type:Criminal Appeal (No. 273 of 1979)
Coram:Y.V. Chandrachud, C.J., P.N. Bhagwati, R.S. Sarkaria, A.C. Gupta, N.L. Untwalia, JJ.
Author: P.N. Bhagwati, J. (Dissenting Judgment)
Decided on: August 16, 1982

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On Arbitrariness
Giving judges discretion to decide on special reasons without any guidelines leads to arbitrary, vague, indefinite and ad hoc criterion of special reasons since each judge’s notion of special reasons would depend on his value system, responses and social philosophy. Such an exercise would be arbitrary and capricious, violating Art 14 and 21. The safeguards such as mandatory pre-sentencing hearing, and various other provisions of the CrPC are only peripheral and do not address the issue of arbitrariness. The legislature has not laid down any guidelines or principles for the exercise of discretion, and in such a situation the Courts cannot evolve principles for the same. That would be encroaching on a legislative function.

The only way arbitrariness can be removed would be if in every case of death penalty, there is mandatory review by the Supreme Court sitting as a whole. The sentence cannot be affirmed or imposed without a unanimous decision and the only exceptional cases in which death sentence may be affirmed or imposed should be legislatively limited. Though there is no doubt that the Constitution envisions the imposition of death penalty, that does not necessarily mean that it is automatically approved by the Constitution. Death penalty is barbaric and cruel and irrevocable; safeguards cannot eliminate completely the possibility of judicial error.

On Proportionality
No exceptional cases or category of ‘rarest of the rare’ was given by the legislature. Allowing for death penalty as an alternate sentence for murder, without and classification would be a grossly disproportional punishment.

Review Petitions

Mohammad Arif v. The Registrar, Supreme Court of India

Citation:(2014) 9 SCC 737
Type: Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 137 of 2010, 52 of 2011, 39 of 2013, and 117/2014.
Coram: R.M. Lodha, C.J., Jagdish Singh Khehar, J., J.J. Chelameswar, J., A.K. Sikri, J., Rohinton Fali Nariman, J.
Author: Rohinton Fali Nariman, J. (For the majority), J. Chelameswar, J. (minority).
Decided on: September 2, 2014.

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One of the issues in this case was whether review petitions in the death sentence cases should only be heard in open court. The practice in the Supreme Court (which was held to be constitutionally valid) was that the review petitions were heard in chambers. The argument here was that death sentence cases were a class by themselves and therefore, merited separate treatment.

The majority decision was that the fundamental right to life had to be viewed in the context of the irreversibility of the death sentence. They held that review petitions for death sentence cases should be heard in open court, but there would be a time limit of 30 minutes for oral hearing. Such a procedure would be just and fair. The cases would be heard by a bench of three judges, and the special procedure would apply to all cases of death sentence where the review had been dismissed but the sentence was yet to be executed, including cases brought under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.

The dissenting opinion was that neither Art. 21, nor the principles of natural justice require a mandatory oral hearing in every case of review; it all depends on the demands of justice in each case.

of s. 303 IPC

Mithu v. State of Punjab

Citation:(1983) 2 SCC 277
Type: Writ Petition (various in No.), Criminal Appeal (various in No.) and Special Leave Petition [(Criminal) No. 2744 of 1980]
Coram: Y V Chandrachud, C. J., A. Vardarajan, O. Chinnappa Reddy, S. Murtaza Fazal Ali and V.D. Tulzapurkar, JJ.
Author: Y. V. Chandrachud, C.J.; O. Chinnappa Reddy, J. (Concurring)
Decided on: April 7, 1983

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Section 303 IPC laid down mandatory death sentence for the offence of murder committed by a person undergoing life imprisonment. The case challenges the constitutional validity of the section in light of Art 21.

Art 14, 21- The mandate of these articles is that every procedure established under law (which includes punishment) must be fair, just and non-arbitrary. The is no rationale for drawing a distinction between a person who commits murder and a person serving life sentence committing murder so as to make the death sentence mandatory for the latter class. It would be a savage punishment to impose a mandatory death sentence on a category of persons on a baseless assumption (that life convicts are dangerous per se).

A standardized mandatory sentence of death deprives Courts of the exercise of its discretion and is, therefore, harsh, unjust and unfair. The section was struck down as being unconstitutional.

Method of Execution

Deena v. Union of India

Citation: (1983) 4 SCC 645
Type: Writ Petition (various in No.) and SLP (Criminal No. 196 of 1983)
Coram: Y V Chandrachud, C. J., R.S. Pathak and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, JJ.
Author: Y. V. Chandrachud, C.J.; Sabyasachi Mukherjee (Concurring), J.
Decided on: September 23, 1983

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Section 354 (5)of the CrPC provides for execution of death sentence by hanging. The constitutional validity of this section was challenged on the grounds that the method of execution was barbarous and torturous and was impermissible under Art 21.

The Court discussed the various methods used for execution across the world and held that no particular method had been shown to have any distinct or demonstrable advantage over hanging. Some pain would be implicit in the causing of death, which alone cannot be reason to hold the method of execution as unconstitutional. What must be ensured is that there must be no torture or degradation of dignity caused to a person in the various steps attendant to an execution, the process must not become a form of punishment on its own. Hanging causes the least pain as death supervenes immediately. Moreover, there are safeguards in place to ensure no accidents take place or that no more pain is than absolutely essential to cause death. Thus, the method of execution by hanging is constitutionally permissible.

Post Mercy Safeguards

i. Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India (2014) 3 SCC 1

ii. Shabnam v. Union of India (2015) 6 SCC 702

Citation:(2015) 6 SCC 702
Type: Writ Petition [(Crl) No. 88-89 of 2015]
Coram: A.K. Sikri, J., Uday Umesh Lalit, J.
Author: A.K. Sikri, J.
Decided on: May 27, 2015

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Shabnam and Saleem were convicted and sentenced to death for murdering seven members of Shabnam’s family. Once their appeals were rejected by the Supreme Court, the Sessions Court issued death warrants. A writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court challenging these death warrants as being impermissible since all legal remedies had not been exhausted.

The Supreme Court agreed that the warrants were impermissible since various judicial and administrative remedies were yet to be exhausted. Further, Art 21 recognizes human dignity as a right and such dignity must be accorded to every convict till the execution of the sentence. A death warrant can be issued only after all judicial and administrative remedies have been exhausted. Once a death warrant is issued, the following procedure must be adhered to:

  1. The convict must be given notice of the warrant to be issued by the Sessions Court so that she can arrange for a counsel to represent her.
  2. The death warrant must specify the exact date and time of the execution.
  3. There must be reasonable period of time between date of order on the warrant and the date of execution so that the convict can pursue legal recourse against the warrant and meet her family.
  4. A copy of the warrant must be immediately supplied to the convict.
  5. Where required the convict must be provided with legal aid.
Apart from this, there is a quadruple test to be satisfied for execution of the death sentence:
  1. The act of execution must be as quick and simple as possible, without increasing the suffering or apprehension of the convict.
  2. The act of execution must produce immediate unconsciousness passing quickly into death.
  3. It should be decent
  4. It should not involve mutilation

Life Imprisonment

Union of India v. V. Sriharan @ Murugan and Ors

Citation:(2016) 7 SCC 1
Type: Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 48 of 2014
Coram: HL Dattu, C.J., Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla, Pinaki Chandra Ghose, Abhay Manohar Sapre, and Uday Umesh Lalit, JJ.
Author: Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla, J. (For the majority), Abhay Manohar Sapre, J. (For the minority), Uday Umesh Lalit, J. (For the minority)
Decided on: December 2, 2015

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In the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, the Supreme Court had commuted the death sentence of three accused. The State of Tamil Nadu, thereafter proposed to remit the life sentences and release all the seven convicts. The Union of India challenged this proposal, and the Supreme Court referred certain questions to the constitution bench of the court, including whether life imprisonment under Section 54 read with Section 45 of the IPC means imprisonment for rest of the life of the prisoner, and whether a special category of sentence may be made for the cases where death penalty might be substituted by life imprisonment which meant the rest of the natural life of the prisoner put that category beyond application of remission.

The Supreme Court noted that life imprisonment could only mean imprisonment for rest of the life of convict. The right to claim remission, commutation, etc. as stipulated under Article 72 or Article 161 of the Constitution would always be available. These were Constitutional powers vested in the Executive which were beyond the judicial powers of the Courts, and thus cannot be interfered with. Further, the special category of sentence created was substitution of death sentence with life imprisonment, or for a term exceeding 14 years, and put that category beyond application of remission, but such a decision can be given only by the High Court or the Supreme Court.

The minority was of the opinion that it was not open to the Court to make any special category of sentence in bstitution of death penalty and put that beyond the scope of remission. The special category of punishment has been carved out on the understanding that the power of remission reduced the sentence of life to 14 years. However, this is not predicated on judicial interpretation but on a practical consideration that the power of remission is often exercised inconsistently. It is for the legislature to remedy such a situation, not the judiciary. Further, they also held by creating such a special category the aspect of reform and rehabilitation may be defeated since remission can be granted based on the good conduct of the prisoner in jail.