Time to abolish death sentence

The Gujarat high court’s judgement in the Godhra train carnage case, commuting the death sentence of 11 convicts to life terms recently, is a welcome assertion of the value of life over the common clamour to award the worst punishment in the book to anyone who commits a murder that catches attention or any other crime for which capital punishment is prescribed.
The court did well to take a more human and obviously the right view on punishment when, unfortunately, efforts are being made to harden the popular mood on crime and punishment in the country. The trial court had awarded life sentences to 20 other accused and acquitted 63 persons of the charges against them. The high court has upheld the life sentences and the acquittals, and modified the death sentences. It also said that the crime for which they have been punished was neither an act of terrorism nor a war against the state.

The court’s reasoning is worth noting and its relevance and importance go beyond the Godhra case. It said: “Death penalties eliminate a person to a point of no return. While considering the question of sentence to death, a duty is cast upon the court to deliberate on various facets of sentence and to immunise itself to avoid branding imposition of death sentence as “judge-centric’’ or “bloodthirsty’’. This is a welcome realisation and should guide all the courts when they consider awarding the most extreme punishment to an accused. The Godhra train carnage would qualify to be considered as the “rarest of rare’’ crimes which, according to the prevalent judicial norm, would warrant the death penalty. The trial court had described it so. But the high court has taken the view that it still did not justify the award of death sentence to the accused.

By sparing the noose for the Godhra case convicts, the high court may have sent out a strong message against capital punishment even for those charged with horrific crimes. The court’s words underline the responsibility of courts to ensure that their decisions are not prompted by a subjective element or a “thirst for blood’’. However, the very provision for capital punishment is based on the notion of an eye for an eye, which is basically thirst for blood. Recently, the Supreme Court queried whether there should not be a better and gentler way of executing capital punishment than hanging. All these may be signs of a growing discomfort in the judiciary over capital punishment. But the provision for capital punishment itself should be done away with, as the law must not kill and must aim at reformation rather than retribution.

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