Trigger warning: This article has graphic depictions and mentions of murder.
In the mid-90s, half-sisters Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit shot to notoriety as serial killers after they were arrested for kidnapping and killing children over a period of six years. In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the death penalty awarded to the two sisters. The sisters appealed for mercy which was declined by the President of India in 2014.
Fast forward to 2022, the Bombay High Court on Tuesday commuted the death sentence awarded to serial killers Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit to life imprisonment after considering the inordinate delay—7 years, 10 months, and 15 days—by the Centre and the state to decide on their mercy pleas.
The division bench comprising Justices Nitin Jamdar and Sarang Kotwal held the Maharashtra government squarely responsible for the prolonged delay which resulted in the situation mandating the commutation of the death sentence.
"The delay, in this case, is not due to the Petitioner's fault. This is not a case of multiple mercy petitions. This mercy petition is also not a case of delay caused by the prisoner's legitimate appeals," the court said. "The delay thereafter is entirely due to the dealings of the executives," it added.
However, the sisters will not be released anytime soon. Despite having spent more than 25 years in jail—they were arrested in 1996—the high court declined their plea for early release pointing out that the same can only be done by the state government by remitting the sentence.
Laxity of the state government has led to the commutation of death penalty
The high court observed that the dereliction of the state government officials in deciding the mercy pleas in a timely fashion led to the legal situation which resulted in the commutation of the death penalty.
The high court pointed out that the sisters were entitled to file mercy pleas. Once entertained, "it was incumbent on the authorities to dispose of these expeditiously".
"There is a complete failure on the part of the executive of the State and to some extent of the Union and the matter was delayed at every stage," the high court said.
The high court said that when the mercy pleas were filed in 2006, constitutional courts had already ruled that an unexplained delay in disposal of mercy petitions may result in commuting the death sentence. Despite this legal position, the mercy petitions were not decided in a timely fashion due to "causal approach" of the officers.
The division bench expressed its surprise that despite the gross and unexplained delay, the state government insisted on carrying out the execution. "This contention overlooks the neglect and indifference of its officers," the judgment read.
"If the State Government was serious about executing the death sentence as being argued before us, it should have ensured that it does not create a situation that attracts a legal position leading to commuting the death sentence," the judgment added.
"Though the procedure for deciding the mercy petitions mandates speed and expediency, the State machinery showed indifference and laxity at each stage of processing the files. That it took seven years only for the movement of files for such a grave issue is unacceptable when electronic communications were available to be used," the high court said.
The court pointed out that the state represents the interest of the society in the criminal justice system. By causing a delay, the state not only violated the constitutional rights of the petitioners but also failed the innocent victims of these heinous crimes.
No early release for the serial killer sisters
Renuka Shinde and Seema Gavit sought early release in light of the time they already served in prison. However, the high court denied their petition observing that only the state government could release them after remitting their sentence.
The crimes committed by the Petitioners are heinous. The brutality shown by the Petitioners in murdering innocent children is beyond words to condemn, the high court observed. "Therefore, if and when the issue of remission of the petitioners' sentence arises for consideration, we have no doubt that the Competent Authority will consider the gravity of the offences, the adverse observations of this Court and the Supreme Court that the Petitioners are beyond being reformed," it added.
The high court in its Tuesday judgment also recalled the observations made by this court and the supreme court while dismissing the petitioners' appeals for early release.
Shinde, Gavit, and their mother Anjana (she died a year after her arrest) were thieves who used kidnapped children as their escape plan. According to the prosecution, when the trio was caught red-handed in the act of stealing, Anjana flung Santosh—a one-year-old toddler they had kidnapped from a beggar in July 1991—to the ground injuring him. This proved to be a handy distraction allowing them to escape.
In April 1991, one-year-old Santosh was their first victim when his head was bashed against an iron bar at a bus stand while the other accused witnessed the killing eating Vada pav. "After the brutal killing of a girl child aged about two and half years, the accused decided to watch a movie and went to a theatre, carrying the dead body of the murdered child in a bag," the order read.
The division bench, which confirmed the death penalty in 2004, referred to these incidents to highlight the extent of the sisters' depravity.
The court on Tuesday pointed out that the 2004 division bench had also observed that evidence proved the sisters not only indulged in heinous serial kidnapping and killing but were completely indifferent to the suffering of the young children and their parents.
In fact, one of the alleged victims, nine-year-old Kranti (the prosecution couldn't prove this case), was none other than Gavit's step-sister. Kranti was kidnapped as an act of revenge against her father Mohit who was Anjana's second ex-husband and Gavit's father.