Of late the call for awarding death sentence to the offenders who have committed rape and murder of children and women is in limelight in the state. In recent years, crimes against women are also on the rise. These crimes are an affront to the human dignity of the society. Various civil society organisations have opined that the heinous crimes perpetrated against children and women must be meted out with befitting punishment. There are demands that death sentence be awarded to all horrendous, barbaric and superlative crimes especially which involve kidnapping, rape and cold blooded murder of tender age children. There were two occasions wherein the trial courts in Manipur had awarded death penalty to the perpetrators in recent times. While the first case involved rape and murder of a minor girl aged about 4 years, the other case related with brutal murder of a woman aged about 26 years. Incidentally, both cases were tried by the same learned Sessions Judge, Senapati, as the Special Judge under the POCSO Act in the first case and as the Sessions Judge in the second case. In both the cases the learned judge awarded death sentence to the main perpetrators. Considering the recent call for awarding befitting punishment to perpetrator of heinous crime against children and women, it is considered appropriate to relook into the second case, being ST No.1 of 2019 and the present discussion is limited to the question of sentence which the present researcher feels that the case does not fit to be categorized as a rarest of rare case.
The speediest murder trial
The case under study was claimed to be the speediest murder trial in the judicial history of the state, concluded within a period of 20 days. It was also reported that the charge sheet was submitted within one month. Altogether 28 prosecution witnesses were examined during the trial. After examining the evidence on record the trial court convicted the main convict under sections 302 and 201 Indian Penal Code within the record time. In the instant case, the trial court noted that ‘the victim being a young girl(sic) in her mid-age was capable of maintaining the family and due to the brutal killing of the victim, the family members are now in turmoil and there is no other way to compensate the loss of life in the family. Such a ruthless murderer has no place in this civilized society’. It was also observed by the trial court that this is not only betrayal of an individual trust but destruction and devastation of social trust. The court noted that since the convict has committed the offence of Sec. 302 IPC, the most deterrent punishment should be awarded and he should be given capital punishment.
Further, the trial court observed that the convict lured a young girl (victim) and on the pretext of loving her and eloping with her, he had mercilessly killed her like an animal by hitting her with a wooden stump and then strangulated by rope and while strangulating the convict muffled the mouth and nose of the victim with towel. The judgment recorded as: Not only that convict again picked a pestle stone and hit on her head and face several times. After the death of the victim, the gold ornaments i.e. ear rings and necklace which was worn by the victim was also removed by the convict and sold it out for an amount of Rs. 59, 000/-. After that even without giving any due honour to the dead body i.e. his own love ones, she was packed up inside gunny bags like an animal and thrown away into the Iril River and tried to conceal and hide all the evidences of the crime”.
The trial court observed: “When the crime is brutal, shocking to the conscience of the womanhood, sympathy would be misplaced and it would loss the confidence of the society at large in the administration of criminal justice system. And the Court while administering criminal justice system and in such type of case, the Court should respond to the cry of the society and this incident made the entire society on the heels and it is burning incident which cannot be ignored. And the Court should respond and settle what would be deterrent punishment for what was apparently abominable crime. And this case is categorised as ‘rarest of rare’ as the crime committed by the convicts are so inhuman, barbaric and merciless and their intention and motive were beyond the thoughts of rational human being. Such cruelty and inhuman act deserves to be wiped out and there is no mitigating factor to deter in other alternative punishment”.
The trial judge by conjecture and surmise observed: “If he is made to live in this society, other innocent woman will become his prey and he will continue to destroy the dignity of woman”. The judge, thus, concluded: “Considering the nature of the case, I am inclined that the type of such case will fall under the category of the rarest of rare and there is no mitigating factor to deter in other alternative punishment. In my considered view, maximum punishment should be awarded and it should be an eye opener for the society at large in order to prevent such brutal and heinous crime in our society”.
Rarest of the rare case doctrine
A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab, (1980) 2 SCC 684 by a majority of 4 to 1 while upholding the constitutional validity of death sentence restricted its application to the ‘rarest of the rare’ cases only. The Apex Court evolved the principle of life imprisonment as the ‘rule’ and death penalty as an ‘exception’. It further mandated consideration of the probability of reform or rehabilitation of the criminal. The sentencing courts are required to consider the aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the offence and the offender when deciding the question of punishment. Courts also have to discharge the burden of meaningfully considering whether the alternative option of life imprisonment has been unquestionably foreclosed. This was further developed in the case of Machhi Singh and others vs. State of Punjab, (1983) 3 SCC 470 wherein the Apex Court held that as part of the `rarest of rare’ test, the Court should address itself as to whether: (i) there is something uncommon about the crime which renders sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence; (ii) the circumstances are such that there is no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offender. Further, the Supreme Court held: “(i) The extreme penalty of death need not be inflicted except in gravest cases of extreme culpability; (ii) Before opting for the death penalty the circumstances of the ‘offender’ also require to be taken into consideration along with the circumstances of the ‘crime’; (iii) Life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception. In other words death sentence must be imposed only when life imprisonment appears to be an altogether inadequate punishment having regard to the relevant circumstances of the crime, and provided, and only provided, the option to impose sentence of imprisonment for life cannot be conscientiously exercised having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime and all the relevant circumstances; (iv) A balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances has to be drawn up and in doing so the mitigating circumstances have to be accorded full weightage and a just balance has to be struck between the aggravating and the mitigating circumstances before the option is exercised.”
The Apex Court further ruled that in order to apply these guidelines inter alia the following questions may be asked and answered:
(a) Is there something uncommon about the crime which renders sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence?
(b) Are the circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offender?
There have been an umpteen number of judgments where the Apex Court has steadily restricted the circumstances for award of death penalty and has increased the burden of showing special reasons before awarding death penalty, as mandated under Section 354(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
No doubt, the trial can be considered as the speediest murder trial in the judicial history of the state. The learned judge by conjecture held that he posed danger to the society as well to innocent women. The court was silent on the criminal test and the option of alternative punishment was not considered. It was also noticed that the accused had no premeditated plan to murder her, but on the spur of the moment, without any premeditation, he gave blows which caused the death. It was also found that the accused had no previous criminal record and there was no mention of examination of any pre-sentence report by the court. Further, the convict was not represented by senior lawyer thereby fair trial rights were also deprived to him. It is true the act was heinous and required to be condemned, but the case could not be said to be one of the rarest of rare cases which justify death penalty. The convict was 27 years at the time of the commission of crime and possibility of reformation could not be ruled out. There was no evidence that could make the court to conclude that he would be a danger to the society in future. The State did not bring on record any evidence to show that the convict cannot be reformed and rehabilitated. From a holistic examination of the entire facts and circumstances of the case, it can be stated that the case did not fit to be brought in the sphere of the rarest of rare case. The sentencing order of the trial court summarily dismissing mitigating factors needs an overhauling. To me the sentence of death awarded to the convict is not appropriate. We must also remember that incapacitation of the offender to commit further offences is also a legitimate interest of the members of the society. A savage sentence is an anathema to the civilized jurisprudence of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The convict deserves to be incarcerated for life.