Case for abolishing death sentence

The commutation by the Supreme Court of the death sentence awarded to a person convicted of murdering six persons of a family in Kerala and the observations made by the court are relevant in the continuing debate on capital punishment in the country. In 1980, the court upheld the validity of the death penalty but limited it to the rarest of rare cases. But since then the court itself and lower courts have used different standards and criteria to award the sentence. The latest example of this is the decision in the Kerala convict’s case. He was sentenced to death by the trial court and the high court, and the Supreme Court upheld the sentence. A review petition and mercy petitions were also rejected. But the Supreme Court has now decided to commute the sentence because it felt that he could not be considered a hardened criminal and the possibility of his "reform, rehabilitation and social integration" had not been considered. 

The court felt that the social, economic and criminal background of a convict should be considered when the sentence is decided. It said there is an impression that accused persons from poorer families are more likely to be awarded the death sentence than those from better-off families. The fact that the court found the death sentence was wrong after it was awarded and confirmed by all courts shows that the standards are not uniformly followed by judges. It  reversed the decision not out of mercy but on solid grounds which it enumerated. That shows that the "rarest of rare" norm is interpreted differently by different courts and all facts and circumstances are not taken into consideration while deciding on a matter as serious as the death sentence. That often makes the sentence arbitrary and judge-centric.  

This was exactly what Justice Kurian Joseph of the Supreme Court also recently said in his last judgment commuting the death sentence of another convict. He said there was ‘’extremely uneven application of the norms’’, the sentence was ‘’arbitrarily and freakishly imposed’’ and there was ‘’no principled method to remove such arbitrariness’’. He laid down some principles to be followed by judges while awarding the death penalty, consideration of the conduct of the convict in the jail and the convict’s psychological condition. But the judge felt the time has come to review the provision, and its purpose and practice. None of its justifications like the need for deterrence has been proved correct. The need for a reformative system of justice, rather than a retributive and punitive one, has been underlined in the past also. That calls for the abolition of capital punishment altogether.  

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Case for abolishing death sentence

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