Observing that there is a chance for reformation and that the death penalty is an exception and not a rule, the Supreme Court has commuted the sentence awarded to a man, who raped his own minor daughter and later killed both his wife and the girl, to life imprisonment — till the end of his life.

A Bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and Ibrahim Kalifulla, in separate but concurring judgments, on Monday held that this was not one of the rarest of rare cases warranting imposition of the death sentence.

A lower court in Punjab awarded 12-year imprisonment to Mohinder Singh, who raped his 12-year-old daughter in 1999, and this was confirmed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. During parole in January 2005, he killed his wife Veena, who was a witness to the rape incident, as well as his daughter. The trial court then awarded him the death sentence, confirmed by the High Court. On appeal, the Supreme Court issued notice, only on the quantum of sentence.

In his judgment, Justice Sathasivam said: “No doubt, it is a case of gruesome double murder in the background of inimical relationship in the family on account of the criminal cases registered against the accused at the instance of his wife and daughter.”

However, “we find it difficult to hold that the appellant is such a dangerous person that sparing his life will endanger the community. We are also not satisfied that the circumstances of the crime are such that there is no alternative to imposing the death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances in favour of the accused. In our considered view, this case is the one in which a humanist approach must be taken in the matter of awarding punishment.”

The judge said: “It is well settled law that awarding life sentence is a rule and death is an exception. In life sentence, there is a possibility of achieving deterrence, rehabilitation and retribution in different degrees. But the same does not hold true for the death penalty as the application of the “rarest of rare” cases principle is dependent upon and differs from case to case. However, the principles laid down and reiterated in various decisions of this court show that a deliberately planned crime, executed meticulously in a diabolic manner, exhibiting inhuman conduct in a ghastly manner, touching the conscience of everyone and thereby disturbing the moral fibre of society would call for imposition of capital punishment in order to ensure that it acts as a deterrent. While we are convinced that the case of the prosecution, based on the evidence adduced, confirms commission of the offence by the appellant, we are, however, of the considered opinion that still the case does not fall within the four corners of the ‘rarest of rare’ case.”

But “life imprisonment cannot be an equivalent to imprisonment for 14 or 20 years or even 30 years, rather it always means the whole natural life.” Any decision to grant Mohinder remission would have to be “well informed, reasonable and fair to all concerned. The power to grant pardons and to commute sentences is coupled with a duty to exercise the same fairly, reasonably and in terms of restrictions imposed in several provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code.”

In his judgment, Justice Kalifulla said: “When a case falls under the category of ‘rarest of rare’ cases, the penalty of death is clearly called for and any leniency shown in the matter of sentence would not only be misplaced but will certainly give rise to and foster a feeling of private revenge among the people leading to destabilisation of society.”

In this case, the conduct of Mohinder in raping his own daughter, after beating her, and in the presence of her mother, was beastly, the judge said. It not only bordered on “immorality of the highest order but would be extremely difficult for anyone to lightly brush aside such a conduct by stating that it was committed either in a fit of anger or rage or such similar situation. If such a grotesque offence of rape had been committed by anyone, other than the father himself, the victim would have had every opportunity to cry for solace in her father or mother. In this context, we are only reminded of the Tamil proverb which, translated into English, [reads]: ‘when the fence eats the crops’.” Still we find that the case does not fall within the category of ‘rarest of rare cases’ though it calls for a stringent punishment.”

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