Reiterating the principle that in murder cases awarding of the death penalty is an exception and life sentence is the rule, the Supreme Court has commuted the death sentence, awarded to an accused in a triple murder case, to life imprisonment.

Giving this ruling, a three-judge Bench of Justices H.L. Dattu, S.J. Mukhopadaya and M.Y. Eqbal said: “In a civilised society a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye ought not to be the criterion to clothe a case with the ‘rarest of the rare’ jacket and the courts must not be propelled by such notions in a haste resorting to capital punishment.”

Writing the judgment, Justice Dattu said: “Our criminal jurisprudence cautions the courts of law to act with utmost responsibility by analysing the finest strands of the matter and it is in that perspective a reasonable proportion has to be maintained between the brutality of the crime and the punishment. It falls squarely upon the court to award the sentence having due regard to the nature of offence such that neither is the punishment disproportionately severe nor is it manifestly inadequate, as either case would not subserve the cause of justice to the society. In jurisprudential terms, an individual’s right of not to be subjected to cruel, arbitrary or excessive punishment cannot be outweighed by the utilitarian value of that punishment.”

The Bench said: “All murders are inhuman, some only more so than others. The degree of brutality has to be ascertained in contrast with other cases and the criteria and the tests laid down in a catena of cases must writ large upon the courts the caution which must be borne in mind while declaring a crime so revolting and diabolical that it warrants nothing less but capital punishment.”

“Further this court has consistently held that the number of deaths or the factum of whole family being wiped off cannot be the sole criterion for determining whether the case falls into the category of ‘rarest of rare.’ We cannot lose sight of the fact that brutality also cannot be the only criterion for determining whether a case falls under the ‘rarest of rare’ categories,” it said.

In the instant case, the appellant Gudda alias Dwarikendra was awarded the death sentence by a lower court in Madhya Pradesh for causing the death of his nephew, his daughter-in-law and five-year-old grandson in his house after inviting them for lunch.

The Madhya Pradesh High Court and a Jabalpur court confirmed the death sentence and the present appeal is directed against this judgment.

Commuting his death sentence into life imprisonment, the Bench said: “Indeed victims of the crime include an innocent child of 5 years and a pregnant lady who were assaulted by the appellant who was then in a position of trust having invited them to his house for lunch. But this alone would not be sufficient to place the crime in ‘rarest of the rare’ category. Further, the appellant is a young man of about 35 years and neither does he have any criminal antecedents nor is it stated that he is or has been an anti-social element. The future possibilities of his reform also cannot be ruled out.

We are of the considered view that the brutality as evinced by the appellant would not fall within the ambit of the ‘rarest of the rare’ cases so as to exercise the discretion of imposing capital punishment.”

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