The Supreme Court in a criminal appeal challenging the judgment and order passed by the Karnataka High Court at Bengaluru commuted the death sentence of a rape and murder accused to life imprisonment after considering the fact that his solitary confinement for around ten years was unlawful in nature.

The Bench of CJI UU Lalit, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, and Justice Pamidighantam Sri Narasimha while referring to the case of Mohd. Mannan alias Abdul Mannan v. State of Bihar (2019) 16 SCC 584 held –

"Considering the entirety of facts and circumstances on record, in our view, ends of justice would be met if while commuting the death sentence awarded to the appellant, we impose upon him sentence of life imprisonment with a rider that he shall undergo minimum sentence of 30 years and if any application for remission is moved on his behalf, the same shall be considered on its own merits only after he has undergone actual sentence of 30 years."

The question before the Apex Court was whether the appellant is entitled to have the death sentence commuted on the ground that the period of solitary confinement is for about ten years. Hence, the Court in this context held–

"Having considered the entirety of matter, in our view, the impact of solitary confinement were obviously evident in the instant case, as would be clear from the letter given by the medical professional on 6.11.2011 and the communication emanating from the jail on 8.11.2011. The incarceration in solitary confinement thus did show ill effects on the well-being of the appellant. In the backdrop of these features of the matter, in our view, the appellant is entitled to have the death sentence imposed upon him to be commuted to death sentence to life."

Advocate (Dr.) Yug Mohit Chaudhary appeared for the appellant and Senior Advocate Sonia Mathur appeared for the Union of India.

Additional Advocate General Nikhil Goel represented the State.

Facts of the case –

A woman named Jayashri, wife of Maradi Subbaiah was found raped and murdered in her home on 28.02.1998, which led to the registration of case with Peenya Circle Police Station, Yeshwanthpur Sub-Division, Bengaluru City. The appellant was arrested in connection and has been in custody since then. After due investigation, the appellant was tried before the Sessions Judge, Fast Track Court-VII, Bengaluru for the offences under Sections 302, 376 and 392 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

The Trial Court convicted the appellant for the aforesaid offences and awarded punishment of death sentence, subject to confirmation by the High Court. The appellant was immediately transferred to Belgaum Central Prison and was kept in solitary confinement. The case for confirmation of death sentence was registered before the High Court and the appellant also filed a criminal appeal challenging his conviction.

The High Court confirmed the conviction order but disagreed on the sentence being imposed. The matter was referred to the 3rd Judge who affirmed the award of death sentence. The appellant filed an appeal before the Supreme Court which got dismissed. The appellant preferred a petition seeking mercy within seven days of the Court's decision and filed a Review Petition for the same. The review petition got dismissed by the Court. Whereas, the Mercy Petition was rejected by the Hon'ble President in the year 2013.

The appellant also filed a writ petition in the Apex Court for the relief of open Court hearing in review petition and the Court directed the stay of execution of death sentence. It was held by majority that the review petition arising out of death sentence be heard in open Court by three Judges bench but the same got dismissed and death sentence award was affirmed by the Court. The appellant within few days filed a writ petition seeking relief in the matter and that also got dismissed by the High Court. The parties thereafter filed written submissions.

The Supreme Court relied upon the case of Ajay Kumar Pal v. Union of India & Anr. 2015 (2) SCC 478 while considering the delay in execution of death sentence due to pendency of Mercy Petition and observed –

"If the instant matter is considered in light of these cases and the settled principles, the alleged period in the instant matter is of two years and three months i.e., starting from the receipt of the mercy petition on 3.3.2011 by the Central Government till the disposal on 15.5.2013. It must be stated that soon after the receipt of the said mercy petition, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India forwarded the mercy petition to the Principal Secretary, Home Department, Karnataka so that the Governor, Karnataka could consider the mercy petition first. In the meantime, on 9.3.2011 in Writ Petition No.52 of 2011 preferred by the appellant, this Court had granted stay of execution of death sentence."

The Court considering the above context further observed –

"Thus, the entire period beginning from 03.03.2011 to 15.05.2013 spanning over a period of 2 years and 3 months saw disposal of mercy petition at two different levels, one, by the Hon'ble Governor and other by the Hon'ble President. All the while, there was an order of stay granted by this Court on 19.3.2011 which was operating all through. First and foremost, the time taken by each of these authorities and the functionaries assisting them cannot be called or termed as "inordinate delay" and secondly, it was not as if every passing day was adding to the agony of appellant."

The Apex Court while dealing with the submission pertaining to solitary confinement noted –

"In the instant case, the letter written by Medical Officer, Belgaum Central Prison on 6.11.2011 did say that the appellant was kept in solitary confinement and said letter has been heavily relied upon by the appellant in support of the second submission. According to the letter, the appellant was kept in solitary confinement since his admission to the prison in October, 2006 and that apart from common illness such as diarrhoea, fever, running nose and backache, the appellant was found to be suffering from psychosis with depression"

The Court further noted that "In the instant case, the death sentence was awarded to the appellant in 2006 by the trial Court and the mercy petition was finally disposed of by the Hon'ble President on 12.5.2013, which means that the incarceration of the appellant in solitary confinement and segregation from 2006 to 2013 was without the sanction of law and completely opposed to the principles laid down by this Court in Sunil Batra."

"If no remission is granted, it goes without saying that as laid down by this Court in Gopal Vinayak Godse vs. State of Maharashtra, the sentence of imprisonment for life shall mean till the remainder of his life", the Court further added.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court allowed the appeal.

Cause Title – B.A. Umesh v. Union of India & Ors.

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