Supreme Court: In a case where a death row convict subjected a 5-year-old girl to rape, killed her by strangulation, and then disposed of her body, tied in a gunny bag, into a stream, the 3-judge bench of L. Nageswara Rao, Sanjiv Khanna* and BR Gavai, JJ has, finding hope for reformation and rehabilitation of the appellant, commuted his death sentence to that of life imprisonment.

The Court, however, stipulated that the appellant shall not be entitled to premature release/remission before undergoing actual imprisonment of 30 years for the offence under Section 302 of the Code and further the sentences awarded shall run concurrently and not consecutively.

The trial court had recorded that the death sentence was awarded on the ground that “the crime was committed in an extremely diabolical manner and that it was cruel, barbaric and revolting.” The High Court has noted that there are no mitigating circumstances at all.

Appellant’s counsel argued that the trial court merely noticed that the appellant was of young age (23 / 25 years) belonging to a very poor family, but has not considered these as mitigating factors. The High Court has noted that there are no mitigating circumstances at all.

The State, on the other hand, brought to the Court’s notice that the data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau shows that an average of 77 acts of rape were committed daily in India in the year 2020.  The State, hence, defended the death sentence on the grounds that the actions of the appellant constitute a grave and uncommon crime endangering the moral fabric of the society. It was argued that the matter falls in the category of ‘rarest of the rare’ cases as the appellant, under the pretext of giving biscuits, committed rape and murder of a five-year old girl, and threw her dead body into the stream. The deceased could not have provided resistance, much less provocation for the crime.

The Supreme Court, disagreeing with the observations of the Trial Court and the High Court, noted down the following mitigating factors that weighed with against imposition of death penalty which is to be inflicted only in rarest of the rare cases:

  • there is no material shown by the State to indicate that the appellant cannot be reformed and is a continuing threat to the society. On the contrary, it can be seen from the Death Sentence Prisoner Nominal Roll dated 17th July 2017 issued by the Chief Superintendent, Central Prison, Belgaum, that the conduct of the appellant in jail has been ‘satisfactory’ which reflects his desire to reform and take a humane turn.
  • the young age of the appellant at the time of commission of the offence (23 / 25 years),
  • his weak socioeconomic background,
  • absence of any criminal antecedents,
  • non pre-meditated nature of the crime,
  • the appellant has spent nearly 10 years 10 months in prison
  • the State has not shown anything to prove the likelihood that the appellant would commit acts of violence as a continuing threat to society.

The Court, hence, noticed that,

“There is no doubt that the appellant has committed an abhorrent crime, and for this we believe that incarceration for life will serve as sufficient punishment and penitence for his actions, in the absence of any material to believe that if allowed to live he poses a grave and serious threat to the society, and the imprisonment for life in our opinion would also ward off any such threat. We believe that there is hope for reformation, rehabilitation, and thus the option of imprisonment for life is certainly not foreclosed and therefore acceptable.”

[Irappa Siddappa Murgannavar v. State of Karnataka, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 1029, decided on 08.11.2021]

*Judgment by: Justice Sanjiv Khanna

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