A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising of L. Nageshwar Rao J., B.R. Gavai J. and B.V. Nagarathna J. recently held that it was its duty to take into consideration not only the crime but also the criminal, his state of mind and his socioeconomic conditions while considering his sentence. The Court, thus, proceeded to commute the death penalty awarded to the appellant to life imprisonment.

Mr. Anand Grover, Senior Advocate appeared for the appellant while Mr. Nishanth Patil, Advocate advanced submissions on behalf of the State.

Factual Matrix: -

The trial court in the instant case had convicted the appellant for offences punishable under Section 363, 366, 376(2)(i), 377, 201 and 302 read with Section 376A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 [in short "IPC"] and Section 6 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 [in short "POCSO Act"]. The appellant was sentenced to death for the offence punishable under Section 302 of the IPC. For other offences, sentences of rigorous imprisonment and life imprisonment were awarded.

A reference for confirmation of death penalty was made to the Chhattisgarh High Court. The High Court dismissed the appeal filed against the judgement of the trial court and confirmed the death penalty. Hence, the appeal before the Supreme Court.

The appellant had confessed his crime before the police. On a memorandum under Section 27 of the Indian Evidence Act, the body of the deceased victim was recovered. The investigation was completed, and charge sheet was filed. Charges were framed under Sections 363, 376(2)(i), 377, 201, 302 read with Section 376A of the IPC and Section 6 of the POCSO Act. The appellant pleaded to be not guilty and claimed his right to be tried. The trial court, as noted above, convicted the appellant and the appeal qua the same was dismissed by the High Court.

Analysis and reasoning of the Apex Court: -

The Court dealt with the law regarding conviction in cases that are based on circumstantial evidence. The celebrated authority of Hanumant, son of Govind Nargundkar v. State of Madhya Pradesh, 1952 SCR 1091 was discussed. The Court, thus, observed as follows:-

"It is thus clear that for resting a conviction in the caseof circumstantial evidence, the circumstances from which theconclusion of guilt is to be drawn, should be fullyestablished, and all the facts so established should beconsistent only with the hypothesis of the guilt of theaccused. The circumstances should be of a conclusive natureand tendency, and they should be such as to excludeeveryhypothesis, but the one proposed to be proved. There mustbe a chain of evidence so complete as not to leave anyreasonable ground for a conclusion consistent with theinnocence of the accused, and it must be such as to showthat within all human probabilities, the act must have beendone by the accused."

The Court then considered the evidence led on behalf of the prosecution and came to the conclusion that prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that the appellant had told PW-5 that if a 'worship' was performed, the whereabouts of the victim could be ascertained. After the worship was performed, appellant had informed about the whereabouts of the victim, from where the body of the victim was found. Materials used for worship were also seized. The Court termed these circumstances as important circumstances vis-à-vis the conduct of the appellant under Section 8 of the Evidence Act.

The Court observed that the record revealed that the body of the deceased was recovered as per the information supplied by the appellant, i.e., in a sack in the bushes near a pole besides the road in Amlibhauna. The Court concluded that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that the dead body was recovered from a place that was distinctly within the knowledge of the appellant. Other relevant circumstances were other considered by the Court. The Court held that non-explanation of circumstances fortifies the finding, that is based on chain of various incriminating circumstances, which leads to the guilt of the appellant.

On the aspect of appropriate opportunity of defending the case, the Court held that though a speedy trial is desirable, sufficient time ought to have been given to the counsel for the accused in order to prepare the case after his appointment. Furthermore, the Court held that some period ought to have been granted between the date of conviction and award of sentence, particularly so, this, being a case of death penalty. However, the Court held, on scrutiny of evidence, that no prejudice was caused as witnesses were cross-examined in detail.

The important question before the Court was of sentence, more importantly, whether death penalty was warranted in the instant case. The court placed reliance on Rajendra Pralhadrao Wasnik v. State ofMaharashtra, (2019) 12 SCC 460 and held that it was the bounden duty of the Court to take into consideration the probability of the accused being reformed and rehabilitated. The court took into account the young age of the appellant as also the reformation and rehabilitation of the accused. The Court, placing reliance on a case where somewhat similar factual scenario arose, made the following observations.

"A bench consisting of three Judges of this Court had anoccasion to consider similar facts in the case of Sunil v.State of Madhya Pradesh, (2017) 4 SCC 393. In the said case too, the appellantaccusedwas around 25 years of age who hadtaken away a minor girl. The accused had committed rapeon the said minor and caused her death due to asphyxiacaused by strangulation. The trial court had sentenced theaccused for the offences punishable under Sections 363,367, 376(2)(f) and 302 of the IPC and awarded him deathpenalty. The same was upheld by the High Court. In appeal,this Court held thus:

"12. In the present case, we do not find that therequirements spelt out in Bachan Singh [BachanSingh v. State of Punjab, (1980) 2 SCC 684 : 1980SCC (Cri) 580] and the pronouncementsthereafter had engaged the attention of either ofthe courts. In the present case, one of thecompelling/mitigating circumstances that mustbe acknowledged in favour of the appellantaccusedis the young age at which he hadcommitted the crime. The fact that the accusedcan be reformed and rehabilitated; the probabilitythat the accused would not commit similarcriminal acts; that the accused would not be acontinuing threat to the society, are the othercircumstances which could not but have beenignored by the learned trial court and the HighCourt.

13. We have considered the matter in the light ofthe above. On such consideration, we are of theview that in the present case, the ends of justicewould be met if we commute the sentence ofdeath into one of life imprisonment. We orderaccordingly. The punishments awarded for theoffences under Sections 363, 367 and 376(2)(f)IPC by the learned trial court and affirmed by theHigh Court are maintained.""

The Court noted that it was inclined to adopt a similar path. Hence, the appeals were partly allowed. The judgement on conviction was maintained, however, the death penalty imposed was commuted to life imprisonment.

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