Supreme Court: The accused challenged the imposition of a fixed term sentence of 30 years, without remission, by the Trial Court which was also affirmed by the Delhi High Court. While exercising its criminal appellate jurisdiction, the division bench of K.M. Joseph and S. Ravindra Bhatt* J.J., held that in cases where the offence is so heinous that death sentence is warranted, the prosecution must produce before the Trial Court all materials which are relevant to assess the mitigating circumstances favoring the accused. The Bench clarified that this exercise must be carried out even in cases where the accused might eventually not be imposed the death sentence.
In the matter at hand, the accused had kidnapped the deceased for ransom on 18-01-2003 and killed him on the same day by strangulation and burning the body to eliminate evidence. The deceased’s father had filed a missing person’s report after which 6 ransom calls were received from different people seeking money in exchange for information about his son’s whereabouts. Upon investigation, it was found that another jurisdictional police station had recovered a half-burnt dead body from a nala on 19-01-2003 and the same was identified by the father of the deceased.
The Trial Court had convicted three accused for the offence committed under Section 302, 364-A, 201 read with Section 120-B of Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’). Two out of three accused were also convicted under Section 411, 420, 468 and 471 IPC who were sentenced to life imprisonment and were not entitled to any parole, remission or furlough before completing 30 years of imprisonment. They were also sentenced to pay a fine of INR 2,10,000 and 4,00,000 as compensation to the victim’s family.
The High Court’s impugned judgment acquitted accused 3 entirely and acquitted accused 1 and 2 only for offence under Section 411 but affirmed their conviction for other offences. Thus, the present appeal, challenging both the conviction and sentence.
Court’s Analysis and Consideration:
The Bench noted that during the last two decades, the capital sentencing decisions had not adopted a symmetrical approach and stated that the exercise of considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances had become more of a formality.
The Court navigated through a catena of cases and opined that the Trial Courts were foreclosed from imposing such a modified or specific term sentence, or life imprisonment for the remainder of the convict’s life, as an alternative to death penalty.
The Bench stated that whenever the State proposed and urges for imposition of death sentence, it has to, per force provide material to facilitate the Court to carry out the exercise of balancing the aggravating factors with the mitigating circumstances – the test propounded in Bachan Singh v. Union of India, (1980) 2 SCC 684, the recent trend being that the reformative element acquires equal attention.
The Court stated that the Trial Court was under an obligation to show that the mitigating circumstances were absent especially that there were no chances of reformation of the accused. When or if the prosecution seeks a capital sentence, the Court has to carry out the exercise of conducting a review of aggravating circumstances and balancing the mitigating circumstances.
The Bench stated that it was imperative to conduct evaluation of mitigating circumstances at the trial stage, in order ‘to avoid slipping into a retributive response to the brutality of the crime’.
The Bench mandated the prosecution to produce before the Sessions Court, material disclosing psychiatric and psychological evaluation of the accused, At the stage when the Trial Court is informed that the prosecution intends to press for imposition of capital sentence, the evaluation should be insisted upon; the State’s task was to present the facts- relating to the accused, which were favourable and unfavourable, for the Court to impose a just sentence.
The Court stated that although the Trial Courts were not empowered to impose such special sentences, yet at the stage when they arrive at findings of guilt in the case of a heinous offence, what would be the nature of the sentence imposed eventually, is unknown; therefore, the prosecution would have to inform the Court, and present relevant materials in case the death sentence is proposed.
The Court thus held that wherever the prosecution is of the opinion that the crime an accused is convicted for, is so grave that death sentence is warranted, it should carry out the exercise of placing the materials, in terms of Manoj v. State of Madhya Pradesh, (2023) 2 SCC 353, for evaluation. In case this results in imposition of death sentence, at the stage of confirmation, the High Court would have the benefit of independent evaluation of these materials. On the other hand, if death sentence is not imposed, then, the High Court may still be in a position to evaluate, if the sentence is adequate, and wherever appropriate and just, impose a special or fixed term sentence, in the course of an appeal by the State or by the complainant or informant.
Thus, the Court held that since the Trial Court had failed to carry out such exercise, the High Court has to call for such material while considering an appeal filed by the State or complainant for enhancement of sentence.
The Court noted that there was limited material regarding the mitigating circumstances of the appellants; existing jail reports and probation officer reports were outdated, thus, the Court had directed submission of three reports dated 05-08-2021.
The Court noted that both the appellants shared commonalities, were young in age at the time of offence, hailed from educated backgrounds, continued to enjoy the love and affection of their families, each of which have a good standing and strong ties within the communities they live in. “While the material relating to their lives and social conditions do not offer an explanation as to the cause for commission of offence, it can certainly be said that the material available regarding their conduct post-conviction, remains encouraging. They have applied themselves during the time of incarceration and used their time to contribute meaningfully. Their psychological and psychiatric evaluations were concluded to be normal, without cause for concern.”
The Court was of the view that a strong case was made out in support of the appellants’ probability of reform and reintegration into society. The state, too, has not indicated any material to the contrary, regarding this aspect.
With the above observation, the Court modified the sentence awarded to both the appellants to a minimum term of 20 years of actual imprisonment.
[Vikas Chaudhary v State of Delhi, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 472, decided on 21-04-2023]
Judgment by Justice S. Ravindra Bhatt
Advocates who appeared in this case:
For the appellant- Senior Advocate Meenakshi Arora, Advocate on Record Mohit D. Ram, Advocate Krishan Kumar, Advocate Sunita Arora, Advocate Monisha Handa, Advocate Rajul Shrivastav, Advocate Shivam Bedi, Advocate Anubhav Sharma, Advocate on Record Gopal Jha;
For the respondent- Advocate on Record Chirag M. Shroff, Advocate Shailendra P. Singh, Advocate Rishabh Shivhase.