Death Sentence and Mercy Petition: Balancing the Justice.

Death SentenceBalancing between the Death Sentence, Mercy and Speedy Justice.

Execution of death sentence by hanging: Validity.

[T]he State has discharged the heavy burden which lies upon it to prove that the method of hanging prescribed by Section 354(5) of the CrPC does not violate the guarantee right contained in Article 21 of the Constitution. The material shows that the system of hanging which is now in vogue consists of a mechanism which is easy to assemble. The preliminaries to the act of hanging are quick and simple and they are free from anything that would unnecessarily sharpen the poignancy of the prisoner’s apprehension. The chances of an accident during the course of hanging can safely be excluded. The method is a quick and certain means of executing the extreme penalty of law. It eliminates the possibility of a lingering death. Unconsciousness supervenes almost instantaneously after the process is set in motion and the death of the prisoner follows as a result of the dislocation of the cervical vertebrae. The system of hanging, as now used, avoids to the full extent “the chances of strangulation which results on account of too short a drop or of decapitation which results on account of too long a drop. The system is consistent,with the obligation of the State to ensure that the process of execution is conducted with decency and decorum without involving degradation of brutality of any kind.”

It is obvious from a reading of the aforesaid that the method of hanging prescribed by Section 354(5) of the Code was held not violative of the guaranteed right under Article 21 of the Constitution on the basis of scientific evidence and opinions of eminent medical persons which assured that hanging is the least painful way of ending the life. However, it is the contention of learned counsel for the respondents that owing to dearth of experienced hangman, the accused are being hanged in violation of the due procedure.

By making the performance of post mortem obligatory, the cause of the death of the convict can be found out, which will reveal whether the person died as a result of the dislocation of the cervical vertebrate or by strangulation which results on account of too long a drop. Our Constitution permits the execution of death sentence only through procedure established by law and this procedure must be just, fair and reasonable. In our considered view, making post mortem obligatory will ensure just, fair and reasonable procedure of execution of death sentence.

Delay in disposal of mercy petition: Effect.

Mercy jurisprudence is a part of evolving standard of decency, which is the hallmark of the society. A series of Constitution Benches of Supreme Court have upheld the Constitutional validity of the death sentence in India over the span of decades but these judgments in no way take away the duty to follow the due procedure established by law in the execution of sentence. Like the death sentence is passed lawfully, the execution of the sentence must also be in consonance with the Constitutional mandate and not in violation of the constitutional principles.

It is well established that exercising of power under Article 72/161 by the President or the Governor is a constitutional obligation and not a mere prerogative. Considering the high status of office, the Constitutional framers did not stipulate any outer time limit for disposing the mercy petitions under the said Articles, which means it should be decided within reasonable time. However, when the delay caused in disposing the mercy petitions is seen to be unreasonable, unexplained and exorbitant, it is the duty of this Court to step in and consider this aspect. Right to seek for mercy under Article 72/161 of the Constitution is a constitutional right and not at the discretion or whims of the executive. Every Constitutional duty must be fulfilled with due care and diligence; otherwise judicial interference is the command of the Constitution for upholding its values.

Retribution has no Constitutional value in our largest democratic country. In India, even an accused has a de facto protection under the Constitution and it is the Court’s duty to shield and protect the same. Therefore, we make it clear that when the judiciary interferes in such matters, it does not really interfere with the power exercised under Article 72/161 but only to uphold the de facto protection provided by the Constitution to every convict including death convicts.

Read full judgement: Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India