There are 488 inmates on death row in India as of December 31, 2021, according to the findings of the sixth edition of the Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics Report. The annual report, released by Project 39A—an advocacy group working on issues surrounding the death penalty, said that the number of inmates in 2021 increased by nearly 21% as compared to the previous year.
"This appears to be a direct result of the comparatively high number of death sentences imposed by trial courts in 2021, and a limited number of decisions by appellate courts," observations in the report read.
When compared to data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), this is the highest number of death row cases since 2004 when it was 563. In 2020, the limited functioning of courts resulted in the lowest number of death sentences imposed by sessions courts in six years at 78. In 2021, the number increased by almost double to 144 death sentences imposed.
"The limited functioning of appellate courts in both 2020 and 2021 meant fewer appeals of prisoners sentenced to death being decided, and a far greater number of prisoners remaining on death row at the end of the year," the report revealed.
The report further revealed that the appellate courts (Supreme Court and high courts) decided far fewer matters, with High Courts deciding 39 matters in 2021 and 31 matters in 2020 compared to 76 in 2019.
In September 2021, the Supreme Court listed death sentence matters on priority, and ultimately decided six matters in 2021, compared to 11 in 2020 and 28 in 2019. The limited functioning of appellate courts in both 2020 and 2021 meant fewer appeals of prisoners sentenced to death being decided and a far greater number of prisoners remaining on death row at the end of the year," the report read.
In 2021, Uttar Pradesh (34), Bihar (27), Tamil Nadu (15), Andhra Pradesh (13) and Odisha (9) imposed the maximum number of death penalties. As of December 2021, the five states with the maximum population of death row inmates are Uttar Pradesh (86), Maharashtra (41), West Bengal (38), Bihar (37) and Madhya Pradesh (37).
Supreme Court did not confirm a single death sentence in 2021
For the first time in six years, the Supreme Court did not confirm a single death sentence in 2021. This was a result of significant changes in the approach of the Supreme Court to death penalty cases.
In September 2021, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana prioritized death penalty appeals and the top court listed 40 matters for hearing. Between September-December 2021, the top court heard arguments in 17 cases (pertaining to 14 prisoners) and gave judgements in five matters.
Of the five matters pertaining to nine individuals, five had their death sentences commuted to life, while four convicts were acquitted of all charges.
While commuting death sentences in 2021, the Supreme Court showed increasing examples of how the lower judiciary abandoned compliance with the sentencing procedures and guidelines it has developed over the years, the report added.
The report pointed to two judgments where the bench comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai and BV Nagarathna took exception to the lower courts' inordinate focus on the factors relating to the crime, with little to no consideration of the circumstances of the prisoner.
Another bench comprising Justices UU Lalit, S Ravindra Bhat and Bela Trivedi appear to have adopted a different approach to death penalty sentencing. However, the final rulings in these cases are yet to be given.
"Collectively, these changes reveal an important shift in the approach of the Supreme Court to the death penalty. It represents a prioritisation of death penalty matters and an increasing focus on the non-compliance of established procedures before this extraordinary punishment can be imposed. It draws attention once again to the complete breakdown of the death penalty sentencing framework in India," the report concluded.
Sexual violence cases continue to influence the implementation of death penalty
In 2021, among the 25 high courts, six cases of capital punishment were confirmed; 21 cases where the death penalty was commutated to life imprisonment; 29 cases that resulted in the acquittal of all charges, and two cases were remitted to the sessions court.
In 2021, sessions courts imposed the death penalty in 34 of the 62 cases of murder simpliciter (simple murder and not accidental murder). While capital punishment was awarded in 45 of the 48 cases pertaining to murder involving sexual offences. The death penalty was awarded in four instances that involved terror offences.
The report submitted that sexual violence cases continue to heavily influence the implementation of the death penalty in India, even if the proportion of sexual violence cases has decreased from that of 2019 and 2020 when it was at 61.62% and 59.67% respectively.
In 2021, the proportion of death sentences for sexual offences has decreased to less than that of murder simpliciter, in contrast to the distribution in 2019 and 2020. However, cases involving sexual offences form most of the total number of cases in which the death sentence was imposed by sessions courts. This means there were fewer cases of murder simpliciter that resulted in death sentences, but these had multiple accused sentenced to death resulting in a greater number of death sentences in this category.
Punjab and MP introduce capital punishment for death by spurious liquor
The governments of Punjab and Madhya Pradesh in 2021 introduced capital punishment for the offence of causing deaths by the sale or manufacture of spurious liquor. In 2021, for the first time in six years, a sessions court in Bihar imposed the death penalty against those dealing in spurious liquor, with nine prisoners sentenced to death in one case under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016.
Maharashtra's state legislature unanimously approved a bill introducing the death penalty for 'heinous' offences of rape and gang rape. The Ministry of Women & Child Development also introduced a bill that imposes capital punishment for repeat aggravated trafficking crimes involving children and women.
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