In a landmark ruling, a Large Bench of the Supreme Court of India held that “unexplained and inordinate” delays in the execution of the death penalty were grounds to change the sentences to life imprisonment.
The Court said, “if there is undue, unexplained and inordinate delay in execution due to pendency of mercy petitions or the executive as well as the constitutional authorities have failed to take note of/consider the relevant aspects, this Court is well within its powers under Article 32 to hear the grievance of the convict and commute the death sentence into life imprisonment on this ground alone however, only after satisfying that the delay was not caused at the instance of the accused himself.”
“Keeping a convict in suspense while consideration of his mercy petition by the President for many years is certainly an agony for him/her. It creates adverse physical conditions and psychological stresses on the convict under sentence of death”, the Court opined.
The Court clarified that supervening circumstance of ‘unexplained delay’ is also applicable to all types of cases including the offences under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.
The Court also held that that insanity and the use of solitary confinement could make a convict eligible for a reduced sentence.
The Court framed below guidelines for safeguarding the interest of the death row convicts: –
1. Solitary Confinement: The Court held that solitary or single cell confinement prior to rejection of the mercy petition by the President is unconstitutional. Almost all the prison Manuals of the States provide necessary rules governing the confinement of death convicts. The rules should not be interpreted to run counter to the above ruling and violate Article 21 of the Constitution.
2. Legal Aid: There is no provision in any of the Prison Manuals for providing legal aid, for preparing appeals or mercy petitions or for accessing judicial remedies after the mercy petition has been rejected. Various judgments of this Court have held that legal aid is a fundamental right under Article 21. Since this Court has also held that Article 21 rights in here in a convict till his last breath, even after rejection of the mercy petition by the President, the convict can approach a writ court for commutation of the death sentence on the ground of supervening events, if available, and challenge the rejection of the mercy petition and legal aid should be provided to the convict at all stages. Accordingly, Superintendent of Jails are directed to intimate the rejection of mercy petitions to the nearest Legal Aid Centre apart from intimating the convicts.
3. Procedure in placing the mercy petition before the President: The Government of India has framed certain guidelines for disposal of mercy petitions filed by the death convicts after disposal of their appeal by the Supreme Court. As and when any such petition is received or communicated by the State Government after the rejection by the Governor, necessary materials such as police records, judgment of the trial court, the High Court and the Supreme Court and all other connected documents should be called at once fixing a time limit for the authorities for forwarding the same to the Ministry of Home Affairs. This should be strictly followed to minimize the delay. After getting all the details, it is for the Ministry of Home Affairs to send the recommendation/their views to the President within a reasonable and rational time. Even after sending the necessary particulars, if there is no response from the office of the President, it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Home Affairs to send periodical reminders and to provide required materials for early decision.
4. Communication of Rejection of Mercy Petition by the Governor: No prison manual has any provision for informing the prisoner or his family of the rejection of the mercy petition by the Governor. Since the convict has a constitutional right under Article 161 to make a mercy petition to the Governor, he is entitled to be informed in writing of the decision on that mercy petition. The rejection of the mercy petition by the Governor should forthwith be communicated to the convict and his family in writing or through some other mode of communication available.
5. Communication of Rejection of the Mercy Petition by the President: Many, but not all, prison manuals have provision for informing the convict and his family members of the rejection of mercy petition by the President. All States should inform the prisoner and their family members of the rejection of the mercy petition by the President. Furthermore, even where prison manuals provide for informing the prisoner of the rejection of the mercy petition, we have seen that this information is always communicated orally, and never in writing. Since the convict has a constitutional right under Article 72 to make a mercy petition to the President, he is entitled to be informed in writing of the decision on that mercy petition. The rejection of the mercy petition by the President should forthwith be communicated to the convict and his family in writing.
6. Death convicts are entitled as a right to receive a copy of the rejection of the mercy petition by the President and the Governor.
7. Minimum 14 days notice for execution: Some prison manuals do not provide for any minimum period between the rejection of the mercy petition being communicated to the prisoner and his family and the scheduled date of execution. Some prison manuals have a minimum period of 1 day, others have a minimum period of 14 days. It is necessary that a minimum period of 14 days be stipulated between the receipt of communication of the rejection of the mercy petition and the scheduled date of execution for the following reasons:-
(a) It allows the prisoner to prepare himself mentally for execution, to make his peace with god, prepare his will and settle other earthly affairs.
(b) It allows the prisoner to have a last and final meeting with his family members. It also allows the prisoners’ family members to make arrangements to travel to the prison which may be located at a distant place and meet the prisoner for the last time. Without sufficient notice of the scheduled date of execution, the prisoners’ right to avail of judicial remedies will be thwarted and they will be prevented from having a last and final meeting with their families.
It is the obligation of the Superintendent of Jail to see that the family members of the convict receive the message of communication of rejection of mercy petition in time.
8. Mental Health Evaluation: In some cases, death-row prisoners lost their mental balance on account of prolonged anxiety and suffering experienced on death row. There should, therefore, be regular mental health evaluation of all death row convicts and appropriate medical care should be given to those in need.
9. Physical and Mental Health Reports: All prison manuals give the Prison Superintendent the discretion to stop an execution on account of the convict’s physical or mental ill health. It is, therefore, necessary that after the mercy petition is rejected and the execution warrant is issued, the Prison Superintendent should satisfy himself on the basis of medical reports by Government doctors and psychiatrists that the prisoner is in a fit physical and mental condition to be executed. If the Superintendent is of the opinion that the prisoner is not fit, he should forthwith stop the execution, and produce the prisoner before a Medical Board for a comprehensive evaluation and shall forward the report of the same to the State Government for further action.
10. Furnishing documents to the convict: Most of the death row prisoners are extremely poor and do not have copies of their court papers, judgments, etc. These documents are must for preparation of appeals, mercy petitions and accessing post-mercy judicial remedies which are available to the prisoner under Article 21 of the Constitution. Since the availability of these documents is a necessary prerequisite to the accessing of these rights, it is necessary that copies of relevant documents should be furnished to the prisoner within a week by the prison authorities to assist in making mercy petition and petitioning the courts.
11. Final Meeting between Prisoner and his Family: While some prison manuals provide for a final meeting between a condemned prisoner and his family immediately prior to execution, many manuals do not. Such a procedure is intrinsic to humanity and justice, and should be followed by all prison authorities. It is therefore, necessary for prison authorities to facilitate and allow a final meeting between the prisoner and his family and friends prior to his execution.
12. Post Mortem Reports: Although, none of the Jail Manuals provide for compulsory post mortem to be conducted on death convicts after the execution, we think in the light of the repeated arguments by the petitioners herein asserting that there is dearth of experienced hangman in the country, the same must be made obligatory.