5-judge bench of Supreme Court to hear suo motu case on guidelines for imposing death penalty

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The Top Court aims to work out the modalities of psychological evaluation, the stage of adducing evidence in order to highlight mitigating circumstances, and the need to build institutional capacity with regard to imposition of death penalty.

A reference to a larger bench of five judges has been made by the Supreme Court for the purpose of coming up with a uniform approach on the question of granting real and meaningful opportunity, as opposed to a formal hearing, to an accused/convict, on the issue of sentence, when conviction is for a capital offence.

In April, the Supreme Court had remarked that it would like to discuss the possibility of giving defense party the facility of interviewing the accused who is facing death penalty, right at the beginning of the trial, and submit a comprehensive analysis at a stage when the matter is considered from the standpoint whether death sentence be imposed or not.

However, before laying down any norms or guidelines, Court deemed it appropriate to issue notice to the Attorney General for India seeking his input.

With this view, the bench had directed the Registry to convert and register an Interlocutory Application before it as an independent Writ Petition (Criminal), and separate and segregate it from the present criminal appeals and other connected matters.

On Monday, the Court opined that a reference to larger bench was necessary in the matter due to a difference of opinion and approach amongst various judgments, on the question of whether, after recording conviction for a capital offence, under law, the court is obligated to conduct a separate hearing on the issue of sentence.

Relying on a plethora of decisions like Bachan Singh, a three-judge bench of the Top Court has found that there is an express acknowledgment that meaningful, real and effective hearing must be afforded to the accused, with the opportunity to adduce material relevant for the question of sentencing.

What is conspicuously absent, is consideration and contemplation about the time this may require, a bench of CJI UU Lalit along with Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Sudhanshu Dhulia observed.

"The question of what constitutes ‘sufficient time’ at the trial court stage, in this manner appears not to have been addressed in the light of the express holding in Bachan Singh. This, in the court’s considered opinion, requires consideration and clarity", Court opined.

Court noted that in all cases where imposition of capital punishment is a choice of sentence, aggravating circumstances would always be on record, and would be part of the prosecution’s evidence, leading to conviction, whereas the accused can scarcely be expected to place mitigating circumstances on the record, for the reason that the stage for doing so is after conviction.

"This places the convict at a hopeless disadvantage, tilting the scales heavily against him. This court is of the opinion that it is necessary to have clarity in the matter to ensure a uniform approach on the question of granting real and meaningful opportunity, as opposed to a formal hearing, to the accused/convict, on the issue of sentence", the bench opined while referring the matter to a larger bench.