Members of SC/ST and Muslim communities comprise more prisoners than their share in the Indian population | Shutterstock
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New Delhi: In a landmark order, the Supreme Court has ruled that post-conviction severe mental illness will now be a mitigating factor while deciding appeals for commutation of death penalty.

A three-judge bench of Justices N.V. Ramana, M.M. Shantanagouder and Indira Banerjee last week delivered the ruling while deciding the plea of a death row convict who was sentenced for rape and murder of two minors.

“…the petition is allowed to the extent that the sentence of death awarded to the Petitioner is commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life sans any right to remission,” said the court, partly allowing the appeal of the convict who was on death row for 17 years.

In its verdict, the court also directed state prisons to set up “a mental health establishment in the medical wing of at least one prison in each State and Union Territory, and prisoners with mental illness may ordinarily be referred to and cared for in the said mental health establishment”.

“Further, it is this state (mental illness) of ‘accused x’ that obliges the State to act as ‘parens patriae’ (protector),” the apex court observed, in reference to the rape and murder convict.

“In this state ‘accused x’ cannot be ignored and left to rot away, rather, he requires care and treatment,” the court added.

The top court acknowledged that prisoners tend to have “increased affinity to mental illness”. It also spoke of “realities within the prison walls” which “may well compound and complicate these problems”.

The verdict reversed the previous order by the top court from over a decade ago upholding the death penalty awarded to the convict.


Also read: Victim impact statements can achieve what death penalty can’t


Directions to be observed

In its 50-page judgment, the Supreme Court noted that there appear to be no set disorders/disabilities for evaluating “severe mental illness”. However, a “test of severity can be a guiding factor for recognizing those mental illnesses which qualify for an exemption”.

The bench said considering India’s international obligations to not punish mental health patients with cruel sentences, it would be necessary for the court to provide for a test wherein only extreme cases of mentally-ill convicts are not executed.

It also cautioned against “utilization of this dicta as a ruse to escape the gallows by pleading such defense even if such aliment is not of grave severity”.

The court passed a slew of directions to now be considered while assessing appeals of those diagnosed with severe mental illness.

The considerations include an assessment of the disability to be conducted by a multi-disciplinary team of qualified professionals, with one professional to have expertise in the particular mental illness of the accused.

The onus would be on the accused to prove that he suffers from the illness.

“The accused has to demonstrate active, residual or prodromal symptoms (early symptoms or signs that precede the development of the illness), that the severe mental disability was manifesting,” the court said.

The court allowed the state to offer evidence to rebut such claim.

However, it clarified that it was not providing a “definitive sentencing policy” — a legislative function — but simply laying down “instructive guidelines” to give the trial court judge the required discretion while sentencing.


Also read: Death penalty is nothing more than political execution, Nirbhaya case isn’t different


Case at hand

The ruling came in the case from over two decades ago, when the convict had kidnapped, raped and murdered two minors. The trial court and the high court (during appeal) had considered two prior convictions of the convict while deciding his sentence. He had raped two other minor girls previously.

Last week, the top court took these observations into account while commuting the death sentence.

The court said that even though the accused was reeling from bouts of mental irritability since 1994, “we cannot lose sight of the fact that a sentence of life imprisonment simpliciter would be grossly inadequate in the instant case”.

“Given the barbaric and brutal manner of commission of the crime, the gravity of the offence itself… and his tendency to commit such offences as is evident from his past conduct, it is extremely clear that the Petitioner poses such a grave threat to society that he cannot be allowed to roam free at any point whatsoever…” said the court.

“…the Petitioner (accused X) shall remain in prison for the remainder of his life.”

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