Speedy, decisive: on trial courts awarding death penalty

Are trial courts under societal pressure to award maximum punishment?

December 19, 2017 01:02 am | Updated 01:02 am IST

Two crimes ended in death sentences for the principal perpetrators last week — one emblematic in the way it sought to uphold caste pride and the other an abominable instance of sexual violence against women. The High Courts of Madras and Kerala would decide later whether to confirm the death penalty, but the trial courts have sent out a significant message that one need not always be cynical about the country’s criminal justice system; that there are times when it responds well, and responds quickly, to the cry for justice. In these cases, one involved the murder of Shankar, a Dalit youth , for marrying Kausalya, who is from an intermediate caste, and incurring her family’s wrath. The other related to the rape and murder of a Dalit law student by a migrant worker. Both crimes took place in the first half of 2016. For Indian courts to render a final verdict within two years is unusual, therefore probably deserving of praise. That the Sessions Court in Tirupur and the one in Ernakulam both imposed the maximum punishment speaks of a commitment to rendering justice. This is a noteworthy and welcome departure from the uninspiring record of tardy trials and perfunctory orders. The Tirupur trial will be remembered for Ms. Kausalya’s courageous deposition, as an eyewitness and the survivor of a murderous attack, and as one with an intimate knowledge of her family’s antipathy towards her slain husband. That she testified against her parents as well as the dangerous gangsters hired by her father to commit the crime is a commentary on her fortitude.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that both State governments bestowed considerable attention on securing justice in these cases, getting the investigation supervised at a high level and appointing special prosecutors. Given the public outcry over the two crimes, any other course would have been unacceptable. In recent years, quick trials and condign punishment have become the order of the day. Besides the ‘Nirbhaya’ gangrape and murder in Delhi , the Shakti Mills gang rape case in Mumbai and the rape of a passenger by a Delhi taxi driver are significant instances. However, it is odd and discomfiting that all such cases end in condemning the convicts to death. Trial courts appear to be under pressure to be seen as ruthless and unwavering, resulting in their reflexively awarding the death penalty. In these two latest cases, the superior courts may well reduce the sentences on a balance of mitigating and aggravating circumstances. But one cannot ignore the core message that efficient investigation and speedy trials help foster trust in the justice system.

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