Death row convict may be heard in open court: SC

In petitions that have been rejected, but sentence has not been carried out, convict may come back seeking open court.

Updated - April 20, 2016 03:36 am IST

Published - September 02, 2014 11:18 am IST - New Delhi

A Five-Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in a majority judgment, decide that review of death sentence cases will be heard in open court by a Bench of three judges.

In a 4:1 majority judgment, the Bench led by Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha directed that death row convicts whose death penalty have been reviewed by a Bench of less than three judges can move the Supreme Court in one month to re-open their review petitions.

However, those whose curative petitions are already decided cannot seek re-hearing.

Justice J. Chelameswar gave the minority judgment while Justice Rohinton Nariman authored the majority one.

The Bench was hearing a batch of writ petitions seeking the court to address the question as to whether review of death penalty awarded in rarest of rare cases should continue to be done in the privacy of the judges’ chambers or transparently in open court, while affording the death row convict the last opportunity to fight for his life.

The judgments were based on a batch of identical writ petitions filed by eight death row convicts, including three in the 2000 Dharmapuri bus burning case, Pakistani national Mohammed Arif alias Ashfaq in the Red Fort Attack case of 2000, 1993 Bombay serial blasts ‘mastermind’ Yakub Memon and B.A. Umesh and Sunder, both convicted in multiple murders.

The Dharmapuri case relates to the death of three students – Kokilavani, Gayathri and Hemalatha – of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, when the bus they were travelling in along with 44 other students and two teachers were torched by the three convicts — Nedunchezhian, Ravindran and Muniappan - on February 2, 2000, after the conviction of AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa in a criminal case.

The convicts' petitions separately demanded that review petitions filed against death sentence should be heard in open court by a Bench comprising from three to five judges as the issue involves taking a person’s life.

They challenged the constitutional validity of the practice of judges being able to hear and dismiss review petitions by “circulation” — in judges’ chambers — rather than in open court with the convict allowed to make oral arguments.

“The convict must be left with no doubt in his mind that every possible opportunity was given to him under the Constitution of India before his life was taken away following the procedure established by law,” Memon had argued in his petition.

However, the judgment follows the implementation of the newly amended Supreme Court Rules 2013 from August 19. The amended rules provide that “every cause, appeal or other proceedings” in a death penalty case would be heard by a Bench of not less than three judges.

Death penalty matters were usually heard by Two-Judge Benches.

The 2013 Rules extend to pending death penalty-related cases also. It says any pending death sentence matters in which a Bench of less than three judges are of the opinion that the accused deserves death, the matter concerned will be referred to the Chief Justice of India, who will in turn constitute a Three-Judge Bench to hear it.

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