At the end of last year, 539 prisoners were on death row in India, the highest since at least 2016. This is according to the Annual Statistics Report 2022, published by Project 39A, a study conducted by the National Law University Delhi.
One major factor for the peak is that in 2022, trial courts imposed 165 death sentences, the highest in over two decades. Chart 1 shows the number of prisoners on death row in India at the end of every year and the number of new death sentences imposed by the session courts each year. Both these figures reached a peak in 2022.
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The sudden rise in 2022 can be directly attributed to a special ruling in February in a case related to the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts which left 56 people dead and over 200 injured. The court awarded the death penalty to as many as 38 convicts and sentenced 11 others to life imprisonment until death.
In total, Gujarat courts imposed 51 death sentences in 2022, the highest among all the States. This is also a huge rise from the average of 2.5 death sentences given by the State’s trial courts between 2016 and 2021. Chart 2 shows the number of death sentences imposed by trial courts in 2022 and the average death sentences imposed between 2016 and 2021. Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand also recorded significant increases in death sentences imposed by trial courts in 2022.
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But soon, the number of death sentences given by trial courts may decrease owing to a significant initiative on capital punishment taken by the Supreme Court in September last year. A three-judge Bench of the Court referred to a five-member Constitution Bench the issue of giving meaningful opportunity to those found guilty of a capital offence to present mitigating factors and circumstances so that they can better plead for a life term instead of a death sentence.
The Constitution Bench may make it necessary for the trial court to get to know the accused better before passing the sentence. Going beyond the reports of jail authorities or parole officers, the courts may draft the help of psychologists and behavioural experts. A study into the childhood experiences and upbringing of the accused, mental health history in the family and the likelihood of traumatic past experiences and other social and cultural factors may be mandated to be part of the sentencing process.
Another major factor for the rise in death row inmates was the low disposal rate of death penalty cases by the appellate courts. In 2022, from the 67 decided cases by the High Courts involving 101 prisoners, three prisoners had their death sentences confirmed, 48 prisoners saw their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment, 43 were acquitted of all charges and six had their cases remitted to the trial court. In one case, the Court enhanced the sentence imposed by the trial court from life imprisonment to the death penalty. Chart 3 shows the share of death penalty cases confirmed, commuted, acquitted and remitted each year by the High Courts. As shown in the chart, the share of cases confirmed by the High Courts was very low in most years.
In the 11 cases decided by the Supreme Court involving 15 prisoners, five prisoners were acquitted of all charges; the death sentences for eight were commuted to life imprisonment; and the death penalty was confirmed for two. Chart 4 shows the share of death penalty cases confirmed, commuted, acquitted and remitted each year by the Supreme Court. As shown in the chart, the share of cases confirmed by the Supreme Court was low in most years.
With inputs from K. Venkataramanan and Mahesh Langa
Source: Annual Statistics Report 2022- Project 39A