'Young age of victims no basis to award death sentence'

Young age of victims no ground to award death sentence: SC

In its decision, a bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, Sanjiv Khanna, and B R Gavai relied upon its previous verdict in Shatrughna Baban Meshram case

The Supreme Court of India. Credit: Reuters Photo

The Supreme Court has said young age of victims in rape-and-murder cannot be a sole ground to impose death penalty on the convict.

The top court partly allowed appeal filed by a man and commuted the death sentence awarded to him for rape and murder of a 5-year-old girl, to life imprisonment.

In its decision, a bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, Sanjiv Khanna, and B R Gavai relied upon its previous verdict in Shatrughna Baban Meshram case which analysed 67 similar cases dealt by it in the last 40 years.

“It appears from the data that low age of the victim has not been considered as the only or sufficient factor by this court for imposing a death sentence. If it were the case, then all, or almost all, 67 cases would have culminated in imposition of sentence of death on the accused," Justice Khanna, who authored the judgement on behalf of the bench, said.

Out of 67 cases, at least in 51 cases the victims were below 12 years. In 12 out of those 51 cases, the death sentence was initially awarded. But, in review, in 3 cases death penalty was commuted to life sentence.

The top court said there is no doubt that the appellant, Irappa Siddappa Murgannavar, a resident of Gadag in Karnataka, committed an abhorrent crime, but for this the 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," the bench said.

The bench said that it has been rightly pointed out by the convict's counsel that the trial court noticed he was of young age of 23 to 25 years, hailing from a very poor family, but has not considered it as mitigating factors. 

“The High Court has noted that there are no mitigating circumstances at all. We find this observation incorrect," the bench said.

In March 2017, the Karnataka High Court confirmed the trial court's decision, awarding capital punishment to the convict for kidnapping, rape and murder of a five-year-old girl in the village of Khanapur. Later, he had thrown the body of the victim in a bag into a stream, named Bennihalla.

The court commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment with the stipulation that the appellant would not be entitled to premature release before undergoing actual imprisonment of 30 years for the offence under Section 302 of the IPC. It also said the sentences awarded shall run concurrently and not consecutively.

However, the order would not affect constitutional power of the President or Governor to grant pardon, remission etc under Article 72 or 161 of the Constitution, in view of constitutional bench decision in Union of India vs V Sriharan alias Murugan and Others (Rajiv Gandhi case convicts), (2016), the court clarified.

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