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Chhannu Lal Verma vs The State Of Chhattisgarh on 28 November, 2018

REPORTABLE

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CRIMINAL APPELLATE JURISDICTION

CRIMINAL APPEAL NO(S). 1482-1483 OF 2018
[Arising out of S.L.P. (Criminal) No(s). 5898-5899 OF 2014]

CHHANNU LAL VERMA … APPELLANT (S)

VERSUS

THE STATE OF CHHATTISGARH … RESPONDENT(S)

JUDGMENT

KURIAN, J.

1. Leave granted.

2. These appeals are filed against the order of the High Court of

Chhattisgarh dated 11.04.2014 confirming the death sentence

awarded to the appellant by the Sessions Judge, Durg vide its

judgment in Sessions Trial No. 288/2011 dated 25.06.2013. The

appellant has challenged both the conviction and the sentence.

3. The brief facts in the present case are as follows. On

19.10.2011, it is alleged that the appellant entered the house of

Anandram Sahu, Firanteen Bai (wife of Anandram Sahu) and Smt.
Signature Not Verified

Digitally signed by
JAYANT KUMAR ARORA
Date: 2018.11.28
19:06:28 IST
Reason:

Ratna Sahu (daughter-in-law of Anandram). The appellant caused

1
fatal injuries to Anandram, Ratna Sahu and Firanteen Bai with a

knife. Thereafter, the appellant entered the house of Durga

Banchhor with a blood-stained knife and assaulted Meera Banchhor

and inflicted grievous injuries. When Durga Banchhor tried to

intervene, she was pushed away by the appellant who then fled from

the spot.

4. The Sessions Court convicted the appellant for murder under

Section 302 of the IPC, attempt to murder under Section 307 IPC,

threatening to kill under Section 506 (2) IPC and house trespass

under Section 450 IPC and sentenced him to undergo life

imprisonment, imposed fines and awarded him death sentence. The

Court took the view that this is a case of the rarest of the rare

category. The way the appellant also picked and chose the people

indicated that the act was pre-meditated. And since the appellant

exhibited cruelty in the process, the Court held it as a case under

the rarest of the rare cases category and the appellant was awarded

death sentence.

5. The High Court while confirming the conviction and death

sentence, relied upon the testimony of PW-15 Sonu who is a child

witness, PW-11 Durga Bai, PW-8 Basanta, PW-9 Sukhdev Yadav and

PW-10 Jailal Dhankar, apart from post-mortem reports. The

aggravating and mitigating circumstances were also considered.

2
While balancing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, the

following have been viewed as aggravating circumstances:
i. That the appellant has committed murder of three persons.
ii. That the appellant knew what he was doing and the conse-

quences thereof and yet he committed the offence.
iii. That the murder of Ratna Bai was committed as he was previ-

ously charged of rape with the deceased Ratna and detained in
jail for a year although he was later acquitted.
iv. Apart from committing murder of three persons, he has also
caused grievous injuries to three persons.
v. That two of the deceased and one of the injured persons were
women.

The only mitigating circumstance that the Court took note of was the

fact that the appellant had been previously accused of committing

rape and was detained in jail for one year only to be acquitted later.

Another factor that the High Court placed reliance on was that the

appellant either feigned ignorance to or denied the questions put to

him by the Trial Judge. The Court thus drew the inference that he did

not make a case that the offence was committed by him in an

emotional or highly disturbed state of mind owing to false

implication in the rape case. The Court held that “the appellant did

not mitigate the circumstance for not imposing the death sentence.”

In conclusion, the High Court held that the aggravating

circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances and the

case thus fell within the ambit of rarest of the rare case which calls

for the imposition of death penalty. Having regard to the strong

3
evidence on record, Mr. Colin Gonsalves, learned senior counsel for

the appellant finally, and according to us rightly, submitted that at

least the sentence may be commuted to life.

6. The learned senior counsel has pointed out that the hearing for

conviction and sentencing was done on the same day in violation of

the guidelines laid down in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab1 and

that the appellant should have been given ample time to adduce

evidence in mitigation and thereafter to be heard on the question of

sentence. Reliance has also been placed on Santosh Kumar

Satishbhushan Bariyar v. State of Maharashtra 2 wherein the

Court held that under Sections 235(2) and 354(3) of the Code of

Criminal Procedure, 1973 there is a mandate for a full-fledged and

bifurcated hearing and recording of “special reasons” if the court is

inclined to award death sentence. The Trial Court has solely looked

at the brutality of the crime to impose death penalty whereas

Bachan Singh (supra) and Santosh Bariyar (supra)

unambiguously have held that aggravating and mitigating

circumstances with regard to both the crime and the criminal need

to be collected before imposing death penalty. Another contention

raised by the appellant is that the High Court has erred in holding

that the appellant did not mitigate the circumstance for not
1 (1980) 2 SCC 684
2 (2009) 6 SCC 498

4
imposing death penalty when the onus to elicit information

necessary for the purpose of sentencing is on the court as held in

Bachan Singh (supra). It is also argued that the High Court has

overlooked the condition laid down in Bachan Singh (supra) that

the State has to prove that the accused does not demonstrate any

probability of reformation or rehabilitation. On the above-mentioned

grounds, the counsel for the appellant prays that the death sentence

imposed be commuted to imprisonment for life.

7. According to the counsel for the respondent State, the mens

rea of the appellant was of high degree and intensity and that the

Courts were right in imposing death penalty. It has also been pointed

out that the appellant had a previous criminal background with the

same family in a Section 376 IPC case and thus it is a case where he

has failed to reform himself. The respondent has also advanced

arguments based on the testimony of the child witness, placing

reliance on Sonu Sardar v. State of Chhattisgarh 3. The blows

delivered by the appellant were intended to commit murder as all

the injuries were severe and inflicted on vital parts. The counsel also

pointed out that the appellant had previous enmity with the family

and the murder was carried out in cold blood and in a premeditated

manner, without any provocation from the victims. The appellant has

not attempted to establish that the act was committed by him due
3 (2012) 4 SCC 97

5
to emotional instability caused by the false implication in a rape

case with one of the deceased. In short, the appellant has not

mitigated the circumstances for avoiding death sentence.

8. In Bachan Singh (supra) while upholding the constitutional

validity of death penalty in India, it was held that under Section

354(3) of the CrPC, imprisonment for life is the rule and death

sentence is the exception. The Court emphasized the need for

principled sentencing without completely trammeling the

discretionary powers of the judges. It also held that the “special

reasons” that are required to be recorded while awarding death

sentence means “exceptional reasons” founded on the exceptionally

grave circumstances of the particular case relating to the crime as

well as the criminal. Some of the aggravating and mitigating

circumstances indicated in Bachan Singh (supra) are: –

Aggravating circumstances: A court may, however, in the
following cases impose the penalty of death in its discretion:

(a) if the murder has been committed after previous
planning and involves extreme brutality; or

(b) if the murder involves exceptional depravity; or

(c) if the murder is of a member of any of the armed forces
of the Union or of a member of any police force or of
any public servant and was committed—

(i) while such member or public servant was on
duty; or

(ii) in consequence of anything done or

6
attempted to be done by such member or
public servant in the lawful discharge of his
duty as such member or public servant whether
at the time of murder he was such member or
public servant, as the case may be, or had
ceased to be such member or public servant; or

(d) if the murder is of a person who had acted in the lawful
discharge of his duty under Section 43 of the Code of
Criminal Procedure, 1973, or who had rendered assistance to
a Magistrate or a police officer demanding his aid or
requiring his assistance under Section 37 and Section 129 of
the said Code.”

Mitigating circumstances: In the exercise of its discretion
in the above cases, the court shall take into account the
following circumstances:

(1) That the offence was committed under the influence of
extreme mental or emotional disturbance.

(2) The age of the accused. If the accused is young or old, he
shall not be sentenced to death.

(3) The probability that the accused would not commit
criminal acts of violence as would constitute a continuing
threat to society.

(4) The probability that the accused can be reformed and
rehabilitated. The State shall by evidence prove that the
accused does not satisfy the conditions (3) and (4) above.

(5) That in the facts and circumstances of the case the
accused believed that he was morally justified in committing
the offence.

(6) That the accused acted under the duress or domination
of another person.

(7) That the condition of the accused showed that he was
mentally defective and that the said defect impaired his
capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.

7

9. The Court also clarified that while determining the punishment,

due regard must be given to the crime as well as the criminal. The

aggravating and mitigating circumstances would have to be viewed

from the perspective of both the crime and the criminal. The

relevant discussion reads thus:

“201. …As we read Sections 354(3) and 235(2) and other
related provisions of the Code of 1973, it is quite clear to us
that for making the choice of punishment or for ascertaining
the existence or absence of “special reasons” in that
context, the court must pay due regard both to the crime
and the criminal. What is the relative weight to be given to
the aggravating and mitigating factors, depends on the facts
and circumstances of the particular case. More often than
not, these two aspects are so intertwined that it is difficult to
give a separate treatment to each of them. This is so
because “style is the man”. In many cases, the extremely
cruel or beastly manner of the commission of murder is itself
a demonstrated index of the depraved character of the
perpetrator. That is why, it is not desirable to consider the
circumstances of the crime and the circumstances of the
criminal in two separate watertight compartments. In a
sense, to kill is to be cruel and therefore all murders are
cruel. But such cruelty may vary in its degree of culpability.

And it is only when the culpability assumes the proportion of
extreme depravity that “special reasons” can legitimately be
said to exist.”

(Emphasis supplied)

However, the Court has emphasised that the list of aggravating and

mitigating circumstances provided above are not exhaustive and the

scope of mitigating factors in death penalty must receive a liberal

and expansive construction by the courts. Paragraph 209 reads as

8
follows:

“209. There are numerous other circumstances justifying the
passing of the lighter sentence; as there are countervailing
circumstances of aggravation. “We cannot obviously feed
into a judicial computer all such situations since they are
astrological imponderables in an imperfect and undulating
society.” Nonetheless, it cannot be over-emphasised that the
scope and concept of mitigating factors in the area of death
penalty must receive a liberal and expansive construction by
the courts in accord with the sentencing policy writ large in
Section 354(3). Judges should never be bloodthirsty. Hanging
of murderers has never been too good for them. Facts and
Figures, albeit incomplete, furnished by the Union of India,
show that in the past, courts have inflicted the extreme
penalty with extreme infrequency — a fact which attests to
the caution and compassion which they have always brought
to bear on the exercise of their sentencing discretion in so
grave a matter. It is, therefore, imperative to voice the
concern that courts, aided by the broad illustrative guide-
lines indicated by us, will discharge the onerous function
with evermore scrupulous care and humane concern,
directed along the highroad of legislative policy outlined in
Section 354(3) viz. that for persons convicted of murder, life
imprisonment is the rule and death sentence an exception. A
real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life
postulates resistance to taking a life through law’s
instrumentality. That ought not to be done save in the
rarest of rare cases when the alternative option is
unquestionably foreclosed.”
(Emphasis supplied)

10. In Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab4 the Court summarised

the findings in Bachan Singh (supra) and held as follows:

“38. In this background the guidelines indicated in Bachan
Singh case will have to be culled out and applied to the facts
of each individual case where the question of imposing of
4 (1983) 3 SCC 470

9
death sentence arises. The following propositions emerge
from Bachan Singh case:

(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.

39. 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

10
weightage to the mitigating circumstances which
speak in favour of the offender?

40. If upon taking an overall global view of all the
circumstances in the light of the aforesaid proposition and
taking into account the answers to the questions posed
hereinabove, the circumstances of the case are such that
death sentence is warranted, the court would proceed to do
so.”
(Emphasis supplied)

11. It is evident that the Court in Bachan Singh (supra) has set a

very high threshold of “rarest of rare cases when the alternative

option is unquestionably foreclosed” for the grant of death penalty.

The meaning and ambit of this expression has been discussed in

Santosh Bariyar (supra). The Court also emphasised the need for a

bifurcated hearing for the purpose of conviction and sentencing. The

relevant portion reads:

“56. At this stage, Bachan Singh informs the content of the
sentencing hearing. The court must play a proactive role to
record all relevant information at this stage. Some of the
information relating to crime can be culled out from the
phase prior to sentencing hearing. This information would
include aspects relating to the nature, motive and impact of
crime, culpability of convict, etc. Quality of evidence
adduced is also a relevant factor. For instance, extent of
reliance on circumstantial evidence or child witness plays an
important role in the sentencing analysis. But what is sorely
lacking, in most capital sentencing cases, is information
relating to characteristics and socio-economic background of
the offender. This issue was also raised in the 48th Report of
the Law Commission.

57. Circumstances which may not have been pertinent in
conviction can also play an important role in the selection of
sentence. Objective analysis of the probability that the

11
accused can be reformed and rehabilitated can be one such
illustration. In this context, Guideline 4 in the list of
mitigating circumstances as borne out by Bachan Singh is
relevant. The Court held: (SCC p. 750, para 206)

“206. (4) The probability that the accused
can be reformed and rehabilitated.

The State shall by evidence prove that the
accused does not satisfy Conditions ( 3) and
(4) above.”

In fine, Bachan Singh mandated identification of aggravating
and mitigating circumstance relating to crime and the
convict to be collected in the sentencing hearing.

58. The rarest of rare dictum breathes life in “special
reasons” under Section 354(3). In this context, Bachan
Singh laid down a fundamental threshold in the following
terms: (SCC p. 751, para 209)
“209. … A real and abiding concern for the
dignity of human life postulates resistance
to taking a life through law’s instrumentality.
That ought not to be done save in the rarest
of rare cases when the alternative option is
unquestionably foreclosed.”
(emphasis
supplied)

An analytical reading of this formulation would reveal it to be
an authoritative negative precept. The “rarest of rare cases”
is an exceptionally narrow opening provided in the domain of
this negative precept. This opening is also qualified by
another condition in the form of “when the alternative option
is unquestionably foreclosed”.

59. Thus, in essence, the rarest of rare dictum imposes a
wide-ranging embargo on award of death punishment, which
can only be revoked if the facts of the case successfully
satisfy double qualification enumerated below:

1. that the case belongs to the rarest of
rare category,

2. and the alternative option of life

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imprisonment will just not suffice in the
facts of the case.

60. The rarest of rare dictum serves as a guideline in
enforcing Section 354(3) and entrenches the policy that life
imprisonment is the rule and death punishment is an
exception. It is a settled law of interpretation that exceptions
are to be construed narrowly. That being the case, the rarest
of rare dictum places an extraordinary burden on the court,
in case it selects death punishment as the favoured penalty,
to carry out an objective assessment of facts to satisfy the
exceptions ingrained in the rarest of rare dictum.

61. The background analysis leading to the conclusion that
the case belongs to the rarest of rare category must conform
to highest standards of judicial rigor and thoroughness as
the norm under analysis is an exceptionally narrow
exception. A conclusion as to the rarest of rare aspect with
respect to a matter shall entail identification of aggravating
and mitigating circumstances relating both to the crime and
the criminal. It was in this context noted: (Bachan Singh
case, SCC p. 738, para 161

“161. … The expression ‘special reasons’
in the context of this provision, obviously
means ‘exceptional reasons’ founded on
the exceptionally grave circumstances of
the particular case relating to the crime as
well as the criminal.””
(Emphasis supplied)

12. In Shankar Kisanrao Khade v. State of Maharashtra5 this

Court looked at the manner in which the aggravating and mitigating

circumstances are to be weighed and how the rarest of rare test is to

be applied while awarding death sentence and held thus:

“52. Aggravating circumstances as pointed out above, of
course, are not exhaustive so also the mitigating
circumstances. In my considered view, the tests that we
5 (2013) 5 SCC 546

13
have to apply, while awarding death sentence are “crime
test”, “criminal test” and the “R-R test” and not the
“balancing test”. To award death sentence, the “crime test”
has to be fully satisfied, that is, 100% and “criminal test”
0%, that is, no mitigating circumstance favouring the
accused. If there is any circumstance favouring the accused,
like lack of intention to commit the crime, possibility of
reformation, young age of the accused, not a menace to the
society, no previous track record, etc. the “criminal test”
may favour the accused to avoid the capital punishment.
Even if both the tests are satisfied, that is, the aggravating
circumstances to the fullest extent and no mitigating
circumstances favouring the accused, still we have to apply
finally the rarest of the rare case test (R-R test). R-R test
depends upon the perception of the society that is “society-
centric” and not “Judge-centric”, that is, whether the society
will approve the awarding of death sentence to certain types
of crimes or not. While applying that test, the court has to
look into variety of factors like society’s abhorrence, extreme
indignation and antipathy to certain types of crimes like
sexual assault and murder of intellectually challenged minor
girls, suffering from physical disability, old and infirm women
with those disabilities, etc. Examples are only illustrative and
not exhaustive. The courts award death sentence since
situation demands so, due to constitutional compulsion,
reflected by the will of the people and not the will of the
Judges.”
(Emphasis supplied)

13. In our opinion, the High Court has erroneously confirmed death

penalty without correctly applying the law laid down in Bachan

Singh (supra), Machhi Singh (supra), Santosh Bariyar (supra)

and Shankar Kisanrao Khade (supra). The decision to impose the

highest punishment of death sentence in this case does not fulfil the

test of “rarest of rare case where the alternative option is

unquestionably foreclosed”. The questions laid down in paragraph

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39 of Machhi Singh (supra) have not been answered in the

particular case. No evidence as to the uncommon nature of the

offence or the improbability of reformation or rehabilitation of the

appellant has been adduced. Bachan Singh (supra) unambiguously

sets out that death penalty shall be awarded only in the rarest of

rare cases where life imprisonment shall be wholly inadequate or

futile owing to the nature of the crime and the circumstances

relating to the criminal. Whether the person is capable of

reformation and rehabilitation should also be taken into

consideration while imposing death penalty. As laid down in

Shankar Kisanrao Khade (supra), whether the person would be a

threat to society or whether not granting death penalty would send a

wrong message to society are additional factors to be looked at. No

such analysis was undertaken by the High Court. The High Court has

also failed to look at the aggravating and mitigating circumstances

regarding the criminal as warranted by Bachan Singh (supra). The

fact that the appellant had no previous criminal record apart from

the acquittal in the Section 376, IPC, which was a false implication

and the alleged motive did not weigh with the High Court as an

important mitigating circumstance with respect to the criminal.

14. In the past four decades or so, this Court has been consistently

echoing its concern on the constitutional ethos on value and dignity

15
of life, when it said in Bachan Singh (supra) that ‘extreme

depravity’ (paragraph 201), ‘it is the duty of the State to adduce

evidence that there is no probability that the accused can be

reformed’ (paragraph 206), ‘liberal and expansive connotation’

(paragraph 209), ‘alternative option is unquestionably foreclosed’

(paragraph 209) ‘humane concern’ (paragraph 209), ‘real and

abiding concern for dignity of human life’ (paragraph 209), in

Machhi Singh (supra) that ‘gravest case of extreme culpability’

(paragraph 38), ‘only when life appears to be an altogether

inadequate punishment’ (paragraph 28), ‘mitigating circumstances

should be given full weightage’ (paragraph 38), in Santosh Bariyar

(supra) that ‘probability that the accused can be reformed and

rehabilitated’ (paragraph 57), ‘the rarest of rare case is a negative

precept’ (paragraph 58), ‘death is an exceptionally narrow opening’

(paragraph 58), ‘extraordinary burden on the Court to impose death’

(paragraph 60), ‘maximum weightage to mitigating circumstances

and yet no alternative except death’ (paragraph 39), ‘highest

standards of judicial rigor and thoroughness’ (paragraph 61), and in

Shankar Kisanrao Khade (supra) that ‘possibility of reformation,

young age of the accused, not a menace to the society, no previous

track record’ (paragraph 52) etc. These factors have not received

due consideration by either the High Court or the Trial Court.

16

15. The appeal has been pending before this Court for the past four

years. Since the appellant has been in jail, we wanted to know

whether there was any attempt on his part for reformation. The

superintendent of the jail has given a certificate that his conduct in

jail has been good. Thus, there is a clear indication that despite

having lost all hope, yet no frustration has set on the appellant. On

the contrary, there was a conscious effort on his part to lead a good

life for the remaining period. A convict is sent to jail with the hope

and expectation that he would make amends and get reformed. That

there is such a positive change on a death row convict, in our view,

should also weigh with the Court while taking a decision as to

whether the alternative option is unquestionably foreclosed. As held

by the Constitution Bench in Bachan Singh (supra) it was the duty

of the State to prove by evidence that the convict cannot be

reformed or rehabilitated. That information not having been

furnished by the State at the relevant time, the information now

furnished by the State becomes all the more relevant. The standard

set by the ‘rarest of rare’ test in Bachan Singh (supra) is a high

standard. The conduct of the convict in prison cannot be lost sight of.

The fact that the prisoner has displayed good behaviour in prison

certainly goes on to show that he is not beyond reform.

16. In the matter of probability and possibility of reform of a

17
criminal, we do not find that a proper psychological/psychiatric

evaluation is done. Without the assistance of such a

psychological/psychiatric assessment and evaluation it would not be

proper to hold that there is no possibility or probability of reform.

The State has to bear in mind this important aspect while proving by

evidence that the convict cannot be reformed or rehabilitated.

17. Another aspect that has been overlooked by the High Court is

the procedural impropriety of not having a separate hearing for

sentencing at the stage of trial. A bifurcated hearing for conviction

and sentencing was a necessary condition laid down in Santosh

Bariyar (supra). By conducting the hearing for sentencing on the

same day, the Trial court has failed to provide necessary time to the

appellant to furnish evidence relevant to sentencing and mitigation.

18. For the abovementioned reasons, we hold that the imposition of

death sentence was not the only option and hence the same needs

to be commuted to imprisonment for life.

Future of death penalty in India

19. Since Bachan Singh (supra) is a Constitution Bench decision of

this Court, the Courts are bound to follow the principles laid down in

the said judgment until it is duly revisited. But we cannot altogether

ignore the fact that various Benches have, over a period of time,

expressed concern regarding the inconsistent application of the

18
principles laid down in Bachan Singh (supra) and have also taken

forward the application of the principles to reduce such

inconsistencies. In Santosh Bariyar (supra), the Court noted the

global move away from death penalty and observed:

“109. …it is now clear that even the balance sheet
of aggravating and mitigating circumstances
approach invoked on a case-by-case basis has not
worked sufficiently well so as to remove the vice of
arbitrariness from our capital sentencing system. It
can be safely said that the Bachan Singh threshold
of “the rarest of rare cases” has been most variedly
and inconsistently applied by the various High
Courts as also this Court.

110. At this point we also wish to point out that the
uncertainty in the law of capital sentencing has
special consequence as the matter relates to death
penalty—the gravest penalty arriving out of the
exercise of extraordinarily wide sentencing
discretion, which is irrevocable in nature. This
extremely uneven application of Bachan Singh has
given rise to a state of uncertainty in capital
sentencing law which clearly falls foul of
constitutional due process and equality principle.
The situation is unviable as legal discretion which is
conferred on the executive or the judiciary is only
sustainable in law if there is any indication, either
through law or precedent, as to the scope of the
discretion and the manner of its exercise. There
should also be sufficient clarity having regard to the
legitimate aim of the measure in question. The
Constitution of India provides for safeguards to give
the individual adequate protection against arbitrary
imposition of criminal punishment.”

20. In Sangeet v. State of Haryana6 the Court notes that

“30. The application of the sentencing policy
6 (2013) 2 SCC 452

19
through aggravating and mitigating circumstances
came up for consideration in Swamy Shraddananda
(2) v. State of Karnataka. On a review, it was
concluded in para 48 of the Report that there is a
lack of evenness in the sentencing process. The
rarest of rare principle has not been followed
uniformly or consistently. Reference in this context
was made to Aloke Nath Dutta v. State of W.B.
which in turn referred to several earlier decisions to
bring home the point.

31. The critique in Swamy Shraddananda was
mentioned (with approval) in Santosh Kumar
Satishbhushan Bariyar v. State of
Maharashtra while sharing this Court’s “unease and
sense of disquiet” in paras 109, 129 and 130 of the
Report. In fact, in para 109 of the Report, it was
observed that: (Bariyar case)

“109. … the balance sheet of aggravating
and mitigating circumstances approach
invoked on a case-by-case basis has not
worked sufficiently well so as to remove the
vice of arbitrariness from our capital
sentencing system. It can be safely said
that the Bachan Singh threshold of
‘the rarest of rare cases’ has been most
variedly and inconsistently applied by the
various High Courts as also this Court.”

32. It does appear that in view of the inherent
multitude of possibilities, the aggravating and
mitigating circumstances approach has not been
effectively implemented.

33. Therefore, in our respectful opinion, not only
does the aggravating and mitigating
circumstances approach need a fresh look but the
necessity of adopting this approach also needs a
fresh look in light of the conclusions in Bachan
Singh. It appears to us that even though Bachan
Singh intended “principled sentencing”,
sentencing has now really become Judge-centric
as highlighted in Swamy

20
Shraddananda and Bariyar. This aspect of the
sentencing policy in Phase II as introduced by the
Constitution Bench in Bachan Singh seems to have
been lost in transition.”

21. In Shankar Kisanrao Khade (supra), this Court went to the

extent of requesting the Law Commission of India for resolving “…

the issue by examining whether death penalty is a deterrent

punishment or is retributive justice or serves an incapacitative goal.”

22. In this context, it may be relevant to note that the Constitution

Bench in Bachan Singh (supra) has made extensive refence to the

35th Report of Law Commission submitted in the year 1967, which

justified the retention of death penalty. Interestingly, Report No. 262

submitted in the year 2015 prepared and submitted based on the

request made by this Court has taken a different view, after

extensive research and with reference to the international approach.

To quote from the introduction of the Report No. 262 :-

“CHAPTER-I

INTRODUCTION

A. Reference from the Supreme Court

21
1.1.1. In Shankar kisanrao Khade v. State of Maharashtra
(‘Khade’) (2013) 5 SCC 546 the Supreme Court of India,
while dealing with an appeal on the issue of death
sentence, expressed its concern with the lack of a
coherent and consistent purpose and basis for
awarding death and granting clemency. The Court
specifically called for the intervention of the Law
Commission of India (‘the Commission’) on these two
issues, noting that :

It seems to me that though the courts have
been applying the rarest of rare principle, the
executive has taken into consideration some
factors not known to the courts for converting
a death sentence to imprisonment for life. It
is imperative, in this regard, since we are
dealing with the lives of people (both the
accused and the rape-murder victim) that the
courts lay down a jurisprudential basis for
awarding the death penalty and when the
alternative is unquestionably foreclosed so
that the prevailing uncertainty is avoided.
Death penalty and its execution should not
become a matter of uncertainty nor should
converting a death sentence into
imprisonment for life become a matter of
chance. Perhaps the Law Commission of
India can resolve the issue by examining
whether death penalty is a deterrent
punishment or is retributive justice or
serves an incapacitative goal. (Shankar
Kisanrao Khade v. State of Maharashtra
(2013) 5 SCC 546 -para 148 (Emphasis
supplied)

It does not prima facie appear that two
important organs of the State, that is, the
judiciary and the executive are treating the
life of convicts convicted of an offence
punishable with death with different
standards. While the standard applied by
the judiciary is that of the rarest of rare
principle (however subjective or Judge-

centric it may be in its application), the

22
standard applied by the executive in
granting commutation is not known.

Therefore, it could happen (and might well
have happened) that in a given case the
Sessions Judge, the High Court and the
Supreme Court are unanimous in their view
in awarding the death penalty to a convict,
any other option being unquestionably
foreclosed, but the executive has taken a
diametrically opposite opinion and has
commuted the death penalty. This may also
need to be considered by the Law
Commission of India. (2013) 5 SCC 546-

para 149. (Emphasis supplied)

1.1.2. Khade was not the first recent instance of the Supreme
Court referring a question concerning the death penalty
to the Commission. In Santosh Kumar Satishbhushan
Bariyar v. State of Maharashtra (‘Bariyar’) (2009) 6 SCC
498 lamenting the lack of empirical research on this
issue, the Court observed :

We are also aware that on 18.12.2007, the
United Nations General Assembly adopted
Resolution 62/149 calling upon countries that
retain the death penalty to establish a
worldwide moratorium on executions with a
view to abolishing the death penalty. India is,
however, one of the 59 nations that retain
the death penalty. Credible research,
perhaps by the Law Commission of India
or the National Human Rights
Commission may allow for an up-do-

date and informed discussion and
debate on the subject. (Emphasis
supplied)

1.1.3. The present Report is thus largely driven by these
references of the Supreme Court and the need for re-

examination of the Commission’s own
recommendations on the death penalty in the light of
changed circumstances.”

23

23. Chapter -VII of Report No. 262 contains the Conclusions

and
Recommendations. To quote :-

“A. Conclusions

7.1.1 The death penalty does not serve the
penological goal of deterrence any more than life
imprisonment. Further, life imprisonment under Indian law
means imprisonment for the whole of life subject to just
remissions which, in many states in cases of serious crimes,
are granted only after many years of imprisonment which
range from 30-60 years.

7.1.2 Retribution has an important role to play in
punishment. However, it cannot be reduced to vengeance.
The notion of “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” has no
place in our constitutionally mediated criminal justice
system. Capital punishment fails to achieve any
constitutionally valid penological goals.

7.1.3 In focusing on death penalty as the ultimate
measure of justice to victims, the restorative and
rehabilitative aspects of justice are lost sight of. Reliance on
the death penalty diverts attention from other problems
ailing the criminal justice system such as poor
investigation, crime prevention and rights of victims of
crime. It is essential that the State establish effective victim
compensation schemes to rehabilitate victims of crime. At
the same time, it is also essential that courts use the power
granted to them under the Code of Criminal Procedure,
1973 to grant appropriate compensation to victims in
suitable cases. The voices of victims and witnesses are
often silenced by threats and other coercive techniques
employed by powerful accused persons. Hence it is
essential that a witness protection scheme also be
established. The need for police reforms for better and
more effective investigation and prosecution has also been
universally felt for some time now and measures regarding
the same need to be taken on a priority basis.

7.1.4 In the last decade, the Supreme Court has
on numerous occasions expressed concern about arbitrary
sentencing in death penalty cases. The Court has noted

24
that it is difficult to distinguish cases where death penalty
has been imposed from those where the alternative of life
imprisonment has been applied. In the Court’s own words
“extremely uneven application of Bachan Singh has given
rise to a state of uncertainty in capital sentencing law
which clearly falls foul of constitutional due process and
equality principle”. The Court has also acknowledged
erroneous imposition of the death sentence in
contravention of Bachan Singh guidelines. Therefore, the
constitutional regulation of capital punishment attempted
in Bachan Singh has failed to prevent death sentences from
being “arbitrarily and freakishly imposed”.

7.1.5 There exists no principled method to remove
such arbitrariness from capital sentencing. A rigid,
standardization or categorization of offences which does
not take into account the difference between cases is
arbitrary in that it treats different cases on the same
footing. Anything less categorical, like the Bachan Singh
framework itself, has demonstrably and admittedly failed.

7.1.6 Numerous committee reports as well as
judgments of the Supreme Court have recognized that the
administration of criminal justice in the country is in deep
crisis. Lack of resources, outdated modes of investigation,
over-stretched police force, ineffective prosecution, and
poor legal aid are some of the problems besetting the
system. Death penalty operates within this context and
therefore suffers from the same structural and systemic
impediments. The administration of capital punishment
thus remains fallible and vulnerable to misapplication. The
vagaries of the system also operate disproportionately
against the socially and economically marginalized who
may lack the resources to effectively advocate their rights
within an adversarial criminal justice system.

7.1.7 Clemency powers usually come into play
after a judicial conviction and sentencing of an offender. In
exercise of these clemency powers, the President and
Governor are empowered to scrutinize the record of the
case and differ with the judicial verdict on the point of guilt
or sentence. Even when they do not so differ, they are
empowered to exercise their clemency powers to
ameliorate hardship, correct error, or to do complete justice

25
in a case by taking into account factors that are outside and
beyond the judicial ken. They are also empowered to look
at fresh evidence which was not placed before the courts.
(Kehar Singh v. Union of India-(1989) 1 SCC 204 paras 7,10
16) Clemency powers, while exercisable for a wide range
of considerations and on protean occasions, also function
as the final safeguard against possibility of judicial error or
miscarriage of justice. This casts a heavy responsibility on
those wielding this power and necessitates a full application
of mind, scrutiny of judicial records, and wide-ranging
inquiries in adjudicating a clemency petition, especially one
from a prisoner under a judicially confirmed death sentence
who is on the very verge of execution. Further, the Supreme
Court in Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India- (2014) 3
SCC1 -paras 55-56) has recorded various relevant
considerations which are gone into by the Home Ministry
while deciding mercy petitions.

7.1.8 The exercise of mercy powers under Article
72 and 161 have failed in acting as the final safeguard
against miscarriage of justice in the imposition of the death
sentence. The Supreme Court has repeatedly pointed out
gaps and illegalities in how the executive confirms that
retaining the death penalty is not a requirement for
effectively responding to insurgency, terror or violent crime.

B. Recommendation

7.2.1 The Commission recommends that

measures suggested in para 7.1.3 above, which include
provisions for police reforms, witness protection scheme
and victim compensation scheme should be taken up
expeditiously by the government.

7.2.2 The march of our own jurisprudence—from
removing the requirement of giving special reasons for
imposing life imprisonment instead of death in 1955; to
requiring special reasons for imposing the death penalty in
1973; to 1980 when the death penalty was restricted by the
Supreme Court to rarest of rare cases – shows the direction
in which we have to head. Informed also by the expanded
and deepened contents and horizons of the right to life and
strengthened due process requirements in the interactions

26
between the state and the individual, prevailing standards
of constitutional morality and human dignity, the
Commission feels that time has come for India to move
towards abolition of the death penalty.

7.2.3 Although there is no valid penological
justification for treating terrorism differently from other
crimes, concern is often raised that abolition of death
penalty for terrorism related offences and waging war, will
affect national security. However, given the concerns raised
by the law makers, the commission does not see any
reason to wait any longer to take the first step towards
abolition of the death penalty for all offences other than
terrorism related offences.

7.2.4 The Commission accordingly recommends
that the death penalty be abolished for all crimes other
than terrorism related offences and waging war.”
(Emphasis supplied)

Having regard also to the said Report of the Law Commission that

the constitutional regulation of capital punishment attempted in

Bachan Singh (supra) has failed to prevent death sentences from

being “arbitrarily and freakishly imposed” and that capital

punishment has failed to achieve any constitutionally valid

penological goals, we are of the view that a time has come where we

view the need for death penalty as a punishment, especially its

purpose and practice.

24. It is also a matter of anguishing concern as to how public

discourse on crimes have an impact on the trial, conviction and

sentence in a case. The Court’s duty to be constitutionally correct

even when its view is counter-majoritarian is also a factor which

27
should weigh with the Court when it deals with the collective

conscience of the people or public opinion. After all, the society’s

perspective is generally formed by the emotionally charged

narratives. Such narratives need not necessarily be legally correct,

properly informed or procedurally proper. As stated in Report No. 262

of the Law Commission …….“the Court plays a counter-majoritarian

role in protecting individual rights against majoritarian impulses.

Public opinion in a given case may go against the values of rule of

law and constitutionalism by which the Court is nonetheless bound”

and as held by this Court in Santosh Bariyar (supra) public opinion

or people’s perception of a crime is …….“neither an objective

circumstance relating to crime nor to the criminal”. In this context,

we may also express our concern on the legality and propriety of the

people engaging in a “trial” prior to the process of trial by the court.

It has almost become a trend for the investigating agency to present

their version and create a cloud in the collective conscience of the

society regarding the crime and the criminal. This undoubtedly puts

mounting pressure on the courts at all the stages of the trial and

certainly they have a tendency to interfere with the due course of

justice.

25. Till the time death penalty exists in the statute books, the

burden to be satisfied by the Judge in awarding this punishment

28
must be high. The irrevocable nature of the sentence and the fact

that the death row convicts are, for that period, hanging between life

and death are to be duly considered. Every death penalty case

before the court deals with a human life that enjoys certain

constitutional protections and if life is to be taken away, then the

process must adhere to the strictest and highest constitutional

standards. Our conscience as judges, which is guided by

constitutional principles, cannot allow anything less than that.

26. These appeals are hence partly allowed, commuting the death

sentence to life imprisonment.

…………………………….J.

[KURIAN JOSEPH]

…………………………….J.

[DEEPAK GUPTA]

…………………………….J.

[HEMANT GUPTA]

NEW DELHI;

NOVEMBER 28, 2018.

29
REPORTABLE

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA 
CRIMINAL APPELLATE JURISDICTION

CRIMINAL APPEAL NOS. 1482­1483 OF 2018
(Arising out of  SLP (Crl.) Nos.5898­5899/2014

CHHANNU LAL VERMA         …APPELLANT(S)

Versus

THE STATE OF CHHATTISGARH    …RESPONDENT(S)

J U D G M E N T

Deepak Gupta, J.

1. We have had the privilege of going through the erudite judgment

delivered by our learned brother Justice Kurian Joseph.  We are in full

agreement with all that is stated in the judgment except the following

observations in Para 23:

“Having   regard   also   to   the   said   Report   of   the   Law
Commission that the constitutional regulation of capital
punishment   attempted   in   Bachan   Singh   v.   State   of
Punjab,   (1980)   2   SCC   684,   has   failed   to   prevent   death
sentences from being “arbitrarily and freakishly imposed”
and   that   capital   punishment   has   failed   to   achieve   any
constitutionally valid penological goals, we are of the view
that a time has come where we view the need for death
penalty   as   a   punishment,   especially   its   purpose   and
practice. It is necessary to re­examine the need for death
penalty.”

30

2. In   our   view,   since   the   Constitution   Bench   in   Bachan   Singh   v.

State of Punjab1, has upheld capital punishment, there is no need to

re­examine the same at this stage.

………………………..J.

(DEEPAK GUPTA)

………………………..J.

(HEMANT GUPTA)

New Delhi
November 28, 2018

1 (1980) 2 SCC 684

31

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