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SC commutes first death sentence in open review hearing after seniors, NLU Delhi assist

Seniors, NLU Delhi win victory against death penalty
Seniors, NLU Delhi win victory against death penalty

On Friday, 11 March, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, comprising justices Ranjan Gogoi, Arun Mishra and Prafulla C Pant, after hearing the review petition of three convicts in the 2000 bus burning at Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, case in open court, commuted their death sentences to life sentences.

The death row convicts were represented by senior advocates L Nageswara Rao and Sushil Kumar.

On 30 August 2010, the Supreme Court confirmed death for the three convicts, in a judgment delivered by justices Dr BS Chauhan [presently chairperson of the Law Commission], who authored it, and GS Singhvi. The convicts were lucky as both the Judges had retired by the time their review petitions were listed to be heard in the open court.

Review petitions are generally heard by the Judges who had given the judgment in the main case, and in almost all such cases, the Judges dismiss the review petitions, without giving any reasons.

After it was made mandatory to hear death sentence review petitions in open court, this is the first instance of the Supreme Court commuting a death sentence to life imprisonment while exercising its review jurisdiction. The success of the review petitioners is due to the fact that all the three Judges hearing the review petitions were not part of the bench which confirmed their death sentences, and therefore, were open to hearing the case on merits.

Besides, the State of Tamil Nadu, as the respondent in the case, left the matter of commutation of the death sentences to the discretion of the bench - a politically correct move because these convicts had indulged in arson which resulted in the tragedy killing three girl students on the fateful day, provoked by the news of the conviction and sentencing of their leader, and present chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa on 22 January 2000.

Significantly, the grounds argued by the counsel for the death row convicts were not argued at the criminal appeal stage, and Dr. Chauhan’s judgment does not mention any of these grounds, now raised by the counsel and accepted by the bench.

The order is also significant because the bench did not exercise the power to exclude remission powers of the state govt while commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment.

While commuting death sentences to life imprisonment, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, on 2 December 2015, had recognised the power to sentence prisoners to imprisonment for the rest of their natural lives by excluding remission powers of state governments.

While dismissing death penalty review petitions (even those heard in open court), the Supreme Court has not adopted the practice of giving a reasoned order. The logic, according to observers, is that since no ‘error apparent’ has been found there is no reason to provide any further reasons.

However, in this instance, it will be interesting to see the manner in which the judges articulate the ‘error apparent’ in the judgment delivered in the criminal appeal, according to Anup Surendranath of the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic of the NLU Delhi.

The Clinic’s Shreya Rastogi, Nishant Gokhale and Burjis Shabir have been involved in the preparation of the case of the convicts for commutation.

The order in the case has not been uploaded yet. But newspaper reports suggest that the bench was satisfied that the convicts did not have any animosity against the deceased, and that they were themselves victims of mob psychology.

Read our feature on death penalty jurisprudence for more on the subject.

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