The story of Devendar Pal Singh Bhullar is truly extraordinary. Condemned to death thrice in the past, he has now obtained a final reprieve from the Supreme Court, thanks to the humanitarian jurisprudence on clemency evolved by it in recent times. With the Court giving him the benefit of its January 21, 2014 verdict, the man convicted of killing nine persons and wounding 17 others in a car bomb attack in Delhi in 1993, will not be executed. His death sentence stands commuted to life on two grounds — that there was an unexplained delay of eight years in disposing of his mercy petition, and that he suffers from mental illness. The verdict was only to be expected, as both these grounds figure among the supervening circumstances for commutation listed by the Supreme Court in January in Shatrughan Chauhan vs Union of India. There were at least three days in Bhullar’s life that appeared to indicate that his fate was sealed: March 22, 2002, when the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against him; June 13, 2011, when the President’s rejection of his mercy petition was communicated to the prison authorities; and April 12, 2013, when the Supreme Court upheld the President’s order. Rarely do cases get reopened after reaching finality in both the appellate and review jurisdictions of the Supreme Court. Yet, such was the scope of the relief envisioned in Shatrughan Chauhan that the Attorney General conceded that this death sentence was liable for commutation in the light of the principles enunciated in that verdict.
The question that arises now is whether there is any aspect of clemency, or constitutional limitation on imposing the irreversible penalty of death, that remains to be settled by the Supreme Court. One aspect that the Court will probably take note of some day in an appropriate case is whether difference of opinion among judges in the appellate court can be a ground for commutation. In Bhullar’s case, the death sentence imposed on him by the Designated Court was upheld by the Supreme Court by a majority of two judges to one. And the dissenting judge did not differ just on the sentence: he acquitted him, holding that the accused could not be convicted solely on the basis of a statement recorded by a police officer. While considering his review petition, the Bench was divided two-one on the effect of this difference of opinion, with the majority holding that one dissent could not be a ground to review the verdict. Questions on the irreversible harm caused by a possible doubtful or mistaken conviction will keep cropping up as long as the death penalty remains on the statute book, helping the judiciary fine-tune and humanise the body of law on death and mercy.