The year 2022 saw the highest population of inmates on death row in India - a total of 539 prisoners, since 2000 when it was 563, according to a report by an advocacy group that monitors capital punishment.
Trial courts last year imposed 165 death sentences, which is the highest in a single year since 2000, the report further revealed. But this increase is sharply influenced by the Ahmedabad blast case where 38 persons were sentenced to death, the report added.
The year 2022 also represented a “historic shift” in death penalty jurisprudence where it not only saw the highest number of death sentences but also witnessed the Supreme Court reconsider—for the first time since 1980—the framework of death penalty sentencing.
The seventh edition of Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics Report, released by National Law University’s Project 39a—an advocacy group that works on issues surrounding capital punishment—reported on significant developments in the framework of death penalty sentencing.
The report highlighted instances where the top court pulled up trial courts for ignoring evidence in accordance with established legal principles, lack of adequate legal representation for a convict, and the “abysmal nature” of investigation to bolster a case.
According to the report, the continued imposition of the death penalty versus the sluggish disposal rate by the appellate courts is responsible for the burgeoning population of inmates on death row.
BOOM breaks down the contents of the report.
Death Row population steadily increasing
A perusal of the report suggests there is a stark difference in a trial court’s approach to the death penalty versus that of the appellate courts. The continued imposition of a high number of death sentences by trial courts with a low rate of disposal by appellate courts has led to an increase in the population on death row.
“The population on death row has steadily increased over the years, with 2022 representing a 40 per cent increase in the population since 2015,” the report added.
Even as the Supreme Court insisted on the importance of evidence on the convict’s probability of reform, trial courts handed death sentences without seeking sentencing materials.
While the trial courts imposed 165 death sentences (two were women) in 2022, the High Court and Supreme Court decided 68 and 11 matters respectively. However, the highest imposition of death sentences by trial courts in over two decades is influenced by the unprecedented imposition of the death sentence on 38 people in one bomb blast case in Ahmedabad,” the report pointed out.
"In 2022, a majority of the cases for which the death penalty was imposed involved sexual offences (51.28%). Murder simpliciter comprised the majority of death sentences (and not cases) as these cases often involve multiple persons sentenced to death in a single case," the report said.
Uttar Pradesh (100) has the highest population of death row inmates followed by Gujarat (61), Jharkhand (46), Maharashtra (39) and Madhya Pradesh (31).
SC to reconsider framework for death penalty cases
The Supreme Court in 2022 for the first time since 1980 acknowledged the need to reconsider the framework for death penalty sentencing and referred the matter to a Constitution Bench, the report said.
The report summarized the top court’s acknowledgement of gaps in the law on death penalty sentencing. It highlighted how the Supreme Court has sought to reconsider if the death penalty can be imposed on the same day of conviction; the need for the centrality of reform to the death penalty sentencing framework; mitigating circumstances and the probability of a convict’s reformation; and mental health impact of prolonged solitary confinement as supervening grounds for commutation after the rejection of mercy petition.
Supreme Court has emphasized the state’s duty to present evidence of the ‘improbability of reform’ before any person can be sentenced to death, the report said. Failure to comply would be considered a mitigating circumstance that could result in the suspension of the death sentence. Such information would also serve to compensate for a trial court’s failure to collect relevant information at the sentencing stage…, the report said.
The report highlights how the apex court acknowledged the absence of “a coherent legal and institutional framework” for the collection and presentation of mitigating circumstances to justify capital punishment. To address this gap, the top court laid guidelines for the compilation of such information, the report added.
Across the three cases where the courts overturned convictions—Project 39a was instrumental in presenting the defence for the convicts—the Supreme Court noted the “abysmal nature” in which the investigation had been carried out. “In Ramanand, the Court raised the possibility of fabrication of evidence during investigation with a falsified extrajudicial confession placed on record merely to bolster the case of the prosecution,” the report noted.
“Similarly, in Chotkau, the Supreme Court raised the possibility of manipulation of the FIR on noting the delay in forwarding it,” the report added.
Supreme Court also “specifically highlighted the lack of uniformity in the death penalty sentencing framework” while referring the matter to a Constitution Bench.
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