The Supreme Court has held that the prosecution is mandated to produce before the Sessions Court, material disclosing psychiatric and psychological evaluation of the accused, in cases where death sentence is warranted.

The Court while partly allowing an appeal pertaining to kidnapping and murder of an 18 year old boy modified the sentence awarded to convicts (appellants) to a minimum term of 20 years actual imprisonment. An impugned order of the Delhi High Court was under challenge before the Court, where it had affirmed the imposition of a fixed term sentence of 30 years, without remission, by the trial court.

The Bench comprising Justice K.M. Joseph and Justice S. Ravindra Bhat noted that the Courts must exercise balance between aggravating and mitigating circumstances and observed "The imperative to conduct evaluation of mitigating circumstances at the trial stage, 'to avoid slipping into a retributive response to the brutality of the crime' which this court noticed was frequently occurring in several cases, was underlined, and it was categorically held that the court had to elicit information from the state and the accused. The prosecution also is mandated to produce before the Sessions Court, material disclosing psychiatric and psychological evaluation of the accused, which is to preferably be collected beforehand".

The Court further took note of the fact that the appellants were educated and were from an urban 'middle class' families. Therefore, was of the opinion-

“Both appellants in the present case, share some commonalities: they were of young age at the time of offence, hail from educated backgrounds, and they continue to enjoy the love and affection of their families, each of which have a good standing and strong ties within the communities they live in…They have applied themselves during the time of incarceration and used their time to contribute meaningfully – for which they have each received commendations. Their psychological and psychiatric evaluations were concluded to be normal, without cause for concern. A strong case is made out in support of the appellants’ probability of reform (as already evidenced by their jail conduct), and reintegration into society. The state, too, has not indicated any material to the contrary, regarding this aspect”.

Senior Advocate Meenkashi Arora appeared for the appellants while Advocate-on-record Chirag M. Shroff appeared for the State.

In the matter at hand, the deceased was an 18-year-old boy, who was kidnapped with an intention to seek ransom in exchange. Thereafter, the appellants strangulated the boy, burnt his body to eliminate evidence, and disposed of the body in a nala, for which the prosecution adduced evidences.

The appellants (originally 3) were convicted under Sections 302, 364A, 201, read with Section 120B IPC along with Section 411, while appellant 1 was also convicted under Section 420, 468 and 471 IPC. Consequentially, sentenced them to life imprisonment for the remainder of their natural life, with an additional condition - that they would not be entitled to any parole, remission, or furlough, before completing 30 years of imprisonment. And were also sentenced to pay compensation.

The High Court while acquitting appellants under Section 411 affirmed their conviction for other offences.

Now, the appellants while relying on the judgment in Union of India v. Sriharan @ Murugan &Ors vehemently contended that it was outside the jurisdiction of the Trial Court, to provide a specific term punishment or till the end of ordinary life, as an alternative to the death penalty which was even overlooked by the High Court, was a sufficient ground to set aside the erroneous decision.

While the other grounds were:

1. That under Section 386(b)(ii) and (iii) of the CrPC adjudication and examination of the order on sentence was still necessary, even when order of conviction has been upheld or modified under Section 386(b)(i);

2. The appellate court had to specifically hear the accused on the quantum and nature of sentence imposed

3. That weightage should have been given to relevant factors like-age at which the offence was committed, likelihood of convict reforming in jail, etc while sentencing.

The Bench relied and cited a catena of judgments that have been followed by the Courts on the different principles enunciated in the arguments and submissions. The Court took note of the age of the convicts at the time of the offence, numerous appreciation certificates for work done in jail with the most recent being COVID-19 crisis, their behaviors, and that they have undergone a period of more than 17 years of actual sentence.

The Court relied on Manoj v. State of Madhya Pradesh for reiterating the principle that the Trial Courts must conduct such psychiatric and psychological evaluation examinations so as to form a background to compare for appellate courts, to evaluate the progress of the accused towards reformation, achieved during the incarceration period.

"To put it simply - although the trial courts are not empowered to impose such special sentences, yet at the stage when they arrive at findings of guilt in the case of a heinous offence, what would be the nature of the sentence imposed eventually, is unknown; therefore, the prosecution would have to inform the court, and present relevant materials (as elaborated in Manoj), in case the death sentence is proposed. In that event, if ultimately death sentence is not imposed, it is open to the state (or the aggrieved party, under Section 372 CrPC) to appeal against the trial court judgment on the point of sentence; at that stage the evaluation before the High Court would be nuanced, and informed with full materials, about the convict, which otherwise it would not have the benefit of. Further, if considerable time has elapsed since the trial stage at which this exercise was undertaken, the appellate court should direct that a fresh attempt be made, to take into account the contemporaneous progress, if any, made by the convict", the Bench noted. Which even otherwise should be exercised in cases where the accused might eventually not be imposed the death sentence, Court further added.

The Court after taking note of the ‘aggravating circumstances’ in the present case noted, “The sole motive for this crime seems to have been greed. Undoubtedly, there was premeditation in the commission of the crime.

However, while answering in affirmation to the grounds raised by the appellants, the Court was of the opinion, " In case this results in imposition of death sentence, at the stage of confirmation, the High Court would have the benefit of independent evaluation of these materials. On the other hand, if death sentence is not imposed, then, the High Court may still be in a position to evaluate, if the sentence is adequate, and wherever appropriate and just, impose a special or fixed term sentence, in the course of an appeal by the state or by the complainant/informant. Given the imperative need for such material to form a part of the court’s consideration, it has to be emphasized that in case the trial court has failed to carry out such exercise (for whatever reason), the High Court has to call for such material while considering an appeal filed by the state or complainant for enhancement of sentence (whether resulting in imposition of capital punishment, or a term sentence)".

Cause Title: Vikas Chaudhary v The State of Delhi

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