The Supreme Court has altered to life imprisonment the death sentence of two convicts who murdered five persons for ransom, considering certain mitigating factors — illiterate, coming from economically weaker sections of the society and having already served 14 years in jail.

A bench of Justices P. Sathasivam and H.L. Dattu said though the prosecution had established beyond doubt the guilt of the two convicts, it would be appropriate if Mulla and Guddu were sentenced to jail for the rest of their lives unless the government in future commuted it for good behaviour.

“Life imprisonment is a rule and imposition of death sentence is an exceptional one” and the same should come within the purview of “rarest of rare category”, Justice Sathasivam writing the judgement said while quoting the court’s earlier rulings.

The victims Hari Kumar Tripathi, Nanhakey, Ram Kishore alias Chottakey Naney, Chhotakkey and Ganga Dai — all agricultural labourers — were abducted and knifed to death on December 22, 1995, in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district by the duo.

They were brutally killed by the duo — with the alleged help of certain other (acquitted) persons — after they failed to pay a ransom of Rs. 10,000 each. The sessions court convicted and sentenced Mulla and Guddu to death on April 30, 2005, and the Allahabd High Court confirmed the death sentence, following which they appealed in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court said though economic deprivation is no justification for committing such heinous offence, yet, courts must consider mitigating factors while awarding the death sentence and cited some of its earlier judgements which had held that death sentence should be only in “rarest of rare” cases.

“In this case, we observe three factors which we must take into account: (1) the length of the incarceration already undergone by the convicts; (2) the current age of the convicts; and finally (3) circumstances of the convicts generally.

“Even in the present case, one of the convicts (Mulla) is around 65 years old. The charges had been framed in 1999 and they have been in custody since 1996. They have been convicted by the sessions court in 2005. Clearly, the appellants have been in prison for the last 14 years,” the court said.

The court said the prosecution had also not produced any material to show whether the two convicts were married, about their family background and no member of their family had visited the convicts during the entire proceedings spanning over 14 years.

The Supreme Court said unfortunately in many judicial decisions, the socio-economic factors are not taken into consideration by the courts.

“Another factor which unfortunately has been left out in many judicial decision-making processes is the socio-economic factors leading to crime. We at no stage suggest that economic deprivation justify moral deprivation but we certainly recognise that in the real world, such factors may lead a person to crime.

“The 48th report of the Law Commission also reflected this concern. Therefore, we believe socio-economic factors might not dilute guilt but they may amount to mitigating circumstances. Socio-economic factors lead us to another related mitigating factor, i.e. the ability of the guilty to reform. It may not be misplaced to note that a criminal who commits crimes due to his economic backwardness is most likely to reform,”Justice Sathasivam said in the judgement.

The court said that in the present case the records indicate that the convicts belong to an extremely poor section.

“With lack of knowledge on the background of the appellants, we may not be certain as to their past, but one thing which is clear to us is that they have committed these heinous crimes for want of money.

“Though we are shocked by their deeds, we find no reason why they cannot be reformed over a period of time. Thus, we hold that despite the nature of the crime, the mitigating circumstances can allow us to substitute the death penalty with a life sentence,” the court said