law Reviews

D.V. Guruprasad’s In The Shadow Of Death: True Stories of Convicts Facing Death Penalty review: Do killers regret their past deeds?

The author explores Death Row Syndrome in Indian jails. It is defined as a state where a person tends to relinquish medical and legal intervention and volunteers for execution.

The author explores Death Row Syndrome in Indian jails. It is defined as a state where a person tends to relinquish medical and legal intervention and volunteers for execution.

By the time D.V. Guruprasad retired as Director General, CID, Karnataka, he had dealt with various types of crimes and criminals. Few cases left a lasting impression on him, for the nature and reason of crime committed.

An event organised to counsel terminally ill cancer patients made him see the patients undergoing three types of reactions — denial, hope and surrender — and that made him wonder about the criminals he had interrogated and who were on death row. They too stare death in the face, but do they experience the same agony, fear and depression as patients in the advanced stages of cancer?

He took a deep dive into the minds of some imprisoned convicts, whose crimes he had investigated as an officer and met them inside the jail, as an ordinary citizen post-retirement. The result is a crime thriller that features true stories of eight killers, who are as varied as they can get. While the meetings changed his perspective towards them, Guruprasad gives readers a rare glimpse into the psyche of death row prisoners.

The well-paced tautly written book is important on two accounts: In India, capital punishment is awarded in rarest of rare cases and, therefore, it is engrossing to know why the gruesome murders highlighted in the book convincingly fit the description of that rarity of a punishment.

Death Row Syndrome

Second, Guruprasad explores Death Row Syndrome (DRS) in Indian jails. It is defined as a state where a person tends to relinquish medical and legal intervention and volunteers for execution, given the dehumanising effects of living for a prolonged period on death row. While researching, Guruprasad realised the dearth of studies on sentenced-to-death convicts. The research done so far is based on solitary confinement convicts in the West.

A 2005 article by American psychiatrist, Harold I. Schwartz mentioned that severe conditions of confinement produce severe psychopathologic reactions in humans; another article by Dr. Stuart Grassian, in 1986 talked about extreme anxiety, dissociation and full-blown psychosis as symptoms of DRS even though the term is not recognised by the American Psychiatric Association. The National Law University, Delhi has published a lone study on death penalty covering 373 prisoners across 20 states and mostly focussed on detailing their socio-economic profiles and not much on their mental health.

He interacted with 40 convicts to understand their personality traits, why and how they took to crime, their mental condition, whether they felt remorse and their reactions to the impending death.

The narrative is bone-chilling as you read about a serial killer who befriended young women to satiate his lust before poisoning them with cyanide; the savage Dandupalya gang that terrorised Bengaluru city in the 1990s; a runaway woman who took to random murders because she found it an easy way to make do with the loot for her survival; a constable who brutally killed women to feed his fetish for undergarments.

Lack of remorse

Guruprasad found a strong underlying common thread among the murderers — the lack of remorse and their vehement denial about committing any crime surprised him. “During my career, I supervised hundreds of criminal investigations; saw suspects admitting their guilt and their confessions led to discovering the hidden weapons, stolen goods and bodies of those killed,” he writes. But inside the prison, he found them delusional.

Psychologist Melitta Schmideberg, quoted in the book, says criminals live in a fantasy world. The impairment of reality, the lack of thought for the future and delusional belief in their own cleverness makes them deny the crime they are jailed for. A Law Commission of India report says death row convicts suffer from extreme agony or debilitating fear of the impending gallows. Many go into depression or believe god would intervene and save their lives.

The convicts Guruprasad writes about are from Karnataka; but crime and criminality are not confined to any geographical region, he says. Whether in Delhi or Kerala, the Andamans or Rajasthan, they think alike. According to him, 35 of the 40 convicts interviewed did not exhibit psychopathological reactions or fear their impending execution. Rather they believed they would get a reprieve.

“The initial shock of being held guilty wanes off. The DRS is not a thing in Indian jails and death penalty is not a deterrent for violent crimes as generally believed,” he says.

In The Shadow Of Death: True Stories of Convicts Facing Death Penalty; D.V. Guruprasad, Jaico Books, ₹399.

soma.basu@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Jul 19, 2022 2:46:10 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/dv-guruprasads-in-the-shadow-of-death-true-stories-of-convicts-facing-death-penalty-review-do-killers-regret-their-past-deeds/article65646921.ece