J. Venkatesan

`Courts should take into account the aggravating as well as mitigating circumstances' Death sentence should be imposed "when the murder is committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly manner so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of the community."

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has reiterated its earlier guidelines on imposition of death sentence only in the rarest of rare cases. It asked the trial and High Courts to take into account the aggravating as well as mitigating circumstances while awarding the punishment.

A bench of Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice Tarun Chatterjee citing various rulings said death sentence should be imposed "when the murder is committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly manner so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of the community."

Further the bench said capital punishment was necessary "when the murder is committed for a motive which evinces total depravity and meanness or cold-blooded murder for gains of a person or murder is committed in the course for betrayal of the motherland and when the crime is enormous in proportion or when the victim of murder is an innocent child or a helpless woman or old or infirm person."

Writing the judgment, Justice Pasayat said "if upon taking an overall view of all the circumstances in the light of the aforesaid propositions and taking into account the answers to questions by way of the rest for [the] rarest of rare cases, the circumstances of the case are such that death sentence is warranted, the court would proceed to do so."

The bench noted that the underlining principles must be "the collective conscience of the community is so shocked that it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty irrespective of their personal opinion as regards desirability or otherwise or retaining death penalty, the same can be awarded."

The bench cited a Constitution bench judgment in which it was categorically held that death penalty was still a recognised legal sanction for murder in most of the civilised countries of the world. Further if the framers of the Indian Constitution had provided for death penalty as a punishment for murder it was not possible to hold that such a punishment was unreasonable, it said.

In this case, one Devendra Nath Rai was awarded death sentence in court martial proceedings for causing homicidal death of two Army personnel. On a petition filed Rai challenging his conviction and punishment, the Allahabad High Court while confirming the conviction held that since this was not one of the rarest of rare cases, death sentence was not warranted. The court directed the authorities to pass a fresh order on the question of sentence. The special leave petition by the Centre was directed against this judgment.

Allowing the appeal to a limited extent, the bench held that the High Court had wrongly come to an abrupt conclusion that this case was not covered under the rarest of rare cases.