According to the jurisprudential principle of double jeopardy, no one shall be punished for the same offence more than once. But in a way, those who spend long years on death row suffer a kind of double jeopardy. They undergo two separate forms of punishment — the death sentence itself, which looms terrifyingly over their heads, and an extended period behind bars, usually in solitary confinement. In stressing that all convicts sentenced to death have a right to an early decision on their mercy petitions, the Supreme Court has highlighted the callous attitude of the political executive to those on death row. Pointing out that 26 mercy petitions were pending with the President of India, many of which related to cases where death sentences were handed out more than a decade ago, the Court pulled up the Centre for keeping those on death row in a limbo by not deciding on their mercy petitions for commuting their death sentences. In suggesting that those on death row for a long period of time could seek their sentences to be commuted to life, the Court was reinforcing the principle laid down in a series of judgments on this issue — that it is gross injustice to keep people hanging interminably between death and life. This newspaper has consistently held that capital punishment has no place in a civilised society. The innate cruelty of this form of punishment is only magnified many times over in an environment where convicts are made to live endlessly in the shadow of death, a condition that promotes delusions and severe emotional distress, known as the Death Row Syndrome.

India is not the only country where prisoners wait out many years on death row. In the United States, for instance, the complicated appeals procedure that is mandatory before executions are carried out is long drawn. It is estimated that nearly one-quarter of those who await execution in the country die of natural causes. In India, the uncertainty is due to inaction on mercy petitions which, in the Supreme Court’s view, is a result of the desire to further “some larger political or government policy.” Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution, which deal broadly with clemency, empower the Central and State governments to commute death sentences, a power they are expected to exercise fairly and expeditiously. The political executive should take quick decisions on the mercy petitions, exercising its discretion in favour of the prisoner in cases where there has been inordinate delay, thereby keeping in line with the spirit of the Supreme Court’s observations. The judiciary is often told that delay defeats justice. This applies to governments as well.