Death Penalty – Trial Court Must Obtain Information from State and Accused on Mitigating Circumstances: Supreme Court Guidelines

Observing that death sentences are most often handed down by trial courts in a punitive sense, the Supreme Court has issued a set of practice guidelines to ensure that the mitigating circumstances of the accused are given due consideration at the trial stage. trial itself.

The Court noted that in most cases, information relating to mitigating circumstances is collected at the appeal stage, and this information mainly relates to post-conviction circumstances.

“The sad reality is that in the absence of well-documented mitigating circumstances at the trial level, the aggravating circumstances seem far more compelling, or overwhelming, making the sentencing court inclined to impose the death penalty, based on an incomplete file and hence a poor application of the Bachan Sing test”, the Court observed.

A bench comprising Judges Uday Umesh Lalit, S Ravindra Bhat and Bela M Trivedi noted that there is no “concrete framework” to measure and assess the possibility of reform. The judgment written by Judge Bhat said that inconsistencies in the approach of trial courts contribute to a “disparate case law on capital punishment”, and in turn “undermine the principle of equality and the protection of a due process”.

“As a small step to correct these biased results and facilitate a better assessment of the defendant’s possibility of being discharged (beyond vague references to conduct, family history, etc.), this court finds it necessary to ‘develop practical guidelines for the courts to adopt and implement, until the legislature and executive, formulate a coherent framework through legislation’, said the court.

As a result, the bench issued the following “Practical Guidelines for Gathering Extenuating Circumstances”.

Mitigating circumstances must be considered at the trial stage; The court must obtain information from the accused and the State

First, the bench said: “There is an urgent need to ensure that mitigating circumstances are taken into account at the trial stage, to avoid slipping into a punitive response to the brutality of the crime, as is clearly the case in the majority of cases reaching the stage of the call “.

To do this, the trial court must obtain information from the accused and the state.

The State must produce documents revealing the psychiatric and psychological evaluation of the defendant.

The State must – for an offense punishable by capital punishment – at the appropriate stage, produce elements which are preferably collected beforehand, before the Session Court disclosing the psychiatric and psychological evaluation of the accused. This will help establish proximity (in terms of timeline) to the accused’s state of mind (or mental illness, if applicable) at the time of committing the crime and offer guidance on mitigating factors (1) , (5), (6) and (7) set out in Bachan Singh (the factors are extracted below for reference). Even for the other factors of (3) and (4) – a responsibility placed squarely on the state – the conduct of this form of psychiatric and psychological evaluation soon after the commission of the offense will provide a baseline that the courts may be used for comparative purposes, i.e. to assess the accused’s progress towards reform during the period of incarceration.

The State must collect additional information relating to the family background, education, socio-economic background of the accused:

Next, the state must, within a specified time, collect additional information about the accused. An illustrative but not exhaustive list is as follows:

a) Age

b) Early family history (siblings, parental protection, history of abuse or neglect)

c) Current family history (surviving family members, married, with children, etc.)

d) Type and level of studies

e) Socio-economic background (including conditions of poverty or deprivation, if applicable)

f) Criminal history (details of offense and if convicted, time served, if any)

g) Income and type of employment (none, temporary or permanent, etc.);

h) Other factors such as a history of unstable social behavior, or mental or psychological disorders, alienation of the individual (with reasons, if any), etc.

This information must obligatorily be available to the trial court at the sentencing stage. The accused should also have the same opportunity to adduce evidence in rebuttal, with a view to establishing any mitigating circumstances.

Information regarding the accused’s conduct in prison should be requested, including a psychiatric and psychological report

Finally, information regarding the conduct and behavior of the accused while in prison, work performed (if any), activities in which the accused was involved and other related details should be requested in the form of a report from the relevant prison authorities (i.e. probation and welfare officer, prison superintendent, etc.). If the appeal is heard after a lengthy hiatus in conviction from the Magistrates Court or confirmation from the High Court, as the case may be, a new report (rather than that used by the previous court) from the prison authorities is recommended, for a more accurate and complete understanding of the contemporary progress made by the accused, in the elapsed time. Prison authorities must also include a new psychiatric and psychological report that will further prove reform progress and reveal post-conviction mental illness, if any.

The Court said that the state’s duty (to provide information on mitigating circumstances) is all the more important in the Indian context where the majority of defendants have a low or rudimentary level of legal representation.

Courts may request additional information

In Anill c. Maharashtra state (2014) 4 SCC 69, the Supreme Court had ordered that “criminal courts, while dealing with offenses such as Article 302 ICC, after conviction, may, in appropriate cases, request a report to determine, whether the accused can be reformed or rehabilitated, which depends on the facts and circumstances of each case”.

In this case, the bench expressed its approval of the above leadership.

“We fully approve and hereby direct that this be implemented in a uniform manner, as further explained above, for the sentencing of offenses which may carry the death penalty”, said the court.

Mitigating circumstances mentioned in Bachan Singh

The Court referred to the mitigating circumstances, which the Court should take into account in exercising the discretionary power to impose the death penalty, mentioned in the Bachan Singh v State of Punjab (1980) 2 SCC 684 judgment as follows:

(1) That the offense 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 will not be condemned to death.

(3) The likelihood that the accused will not commit violent criminal acts that would pose a continuing threat to society.

(4) The likelihood that the accused can be reformed and rehabilitated. The State will prove by evidence that the accused does not meet the conditions (3) and (4) above.

(5) That, having regard to the facts and circumstances of the case, the accused believed that it was morally justified to commit 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 deficient and that the said defect impaired his ability to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.”

The Court ruled on appeals lodged by three people (two men and a woman), sentenced to death for the murder of three women (a woman, her mother-in-law and her daughter) during a robbery.

Court requests convict reports

Prior to the sentencing hearing in this court, an instruction was given to the State to file (based on personal interviews and prison records) for each of the defendants – a psychological evaluation report , a probation officer report and a prison report including documents. on their conduct and the work accomplished.

The appellants also filed documents in the court file to demonstrate their situation. Saying that an “individualized approach” is necessary, the Court assessed the situation of each of the defendants individually.

The Supreme Court criticized both the Magistrate Court and the High Court for failing to hold an effective sentencing hearing for the accused, at the relevant stage, which is a right under s. 235(2) CrPC.

“The trial court’s sentencing order, in passing, registers – the ‘young age’ and ‘socio-economic factors’ argument as mitigating circumstances, but reflects, at best, a mechanical consideration of the same Influenced by the brutality of the crime and “shock of the collective and judicial conscience”, the High Court upheld the imposition of the death penalty solely on the basis of the aggravating circumstances of the crime, with negligible consideration of the mitigating circumstances of the criminal This is in direct violation of Bachan Singh,” observed the Supreme Court.

While agreeing that the crime committed by the appellants was brutal and heinous, the Court held that the imposition of the death penalty was unjustified in view of the facts and circumstances of the case.

The Supreme Court took into account the defendant’s young age at the time of the events (35, 20, 22 respectively), the absence of a motive other than theft, the general good behavior in prison which indicated a tendency to reform.

“It is evident that they have already, in prison, taken steps to improve their lives and those around them, which, coupled with their young age122, demonstrates unequivocally that there is in fact a likelihood of reform. Account considering all the circumstances in the aggregate, we find that the option of life imprisonment is certainly not ruled out,” said the Court.

As a result, the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment for a minimum term of 25 years.

Case Title: Manoj and Others v. State of Madhya Pradesh

Citation: 2022 LiveLaw (SC) 510

Indian Penal Code, 1860 – Section 302 IPC – Death Penalty – Issued Practice Guidelines for Gathering Mitigating Circumstances from Accused at Trial Stage – Magistrate Court Must Obtain Information from Accused and State – The State must – for a death penalty offense – at the appropriate stage, produce documents which are preferably collected beforehand, before the Session Court disclosing the psychiatric and psychological assessment of the accused (paragraphs 213 to 217)

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