Supreme Court moots deeper scrutiny before award of death penalty

Trial judges to be assisted by ‘mitigation experts’ to aid judicial process of determining punishment

April 22, 2022 08:29 pm | Updated April 23, 2022 11:19 am IST - NEW DELHI

A Supreme Court Bench led by Justice U.U. Lalit said courts may be opting for the death penalty too soon.

A Supreme Court Bench led by Justice U.U. Lalit said courts may be opting for the death penalty too soon. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Supreme Court on Friday asked Attorney General K.K. Venugopal for assistance to institutionalise a mechanism by which information crucial to decide whether a person should be condemned to death or not can be gathered and placed on record before trial judges.

A Bench led by Justice U.U. Lalit said courts may be opting for the death penalty too soon. In some cases, trial courts sentence a person to death merely hours after conviction.

Also read | Judges mustn’t be swayed in favour of death penalty: Supreme Court

The apex court's introspection may be a sign of the judiciary veering away from the death penalty.

Little effort is taken to unearth or understand the circumstances which led a person to commit the crime. In short, trial judges hardly know the people they are sending to the gallows. Mitigatory circumstances quoted in favour of a convict while sentencing were often basic. These included the convict's immediate family structure, education and work prior to arrest.

No effort is ever made to dig deeper into a convict's childhood experiences, multi-generational history of physical and mental health issues, exposure to traumatic events and other familial, social and cultural factors crucial in order to undertake an individualised sentencing enquiry.

On Friday, the Bench said this 'one-size-fits-all' approach while considering mitigating factors during sentencing should end. A more enlightened approach has to be evolved.

The court said a "mitigation expert", a qualified professional with unhindered access to the convict's past, ought to be at the centre of this change in outlook.

Mitigating investigators would be experts in fields as varied as social work, sociology, anthropology, criminology, psychology and other social sciences. They could interview the convicts, their families, friends and other associated with the prisoners and their past to draw a complete picture. The information could then be placed before a trial judge to aid in the judicial process of determining the punishment.

Mr. Venugopal approved of the court's move and said he would submit a detailed note of suggestions on the issue. The court has already appointed senior advocate Siddharth Dave and advocate K. Parameshwar as amici curiae in the case.

The court had decided to explore the issue when Irfan, a condemned man from Madhya Pradesh, represented by advocate Irshad Hanif, sought permission to be interviewed by C.P. Shruthi, a mitigation investigator with Project 39A, in jail.

Her investigation had revealed that Irfan had witnessed “multiple traumatic events in the immediate family and the community”. These issues were not examined by the trial judge while sentencing Irfan to death.

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