The Supreme Court in a murder case has held that there is an urgent need to ensure mitigating circumstances are considered at the trial stage, to avoid slipping into a retributive response to the brutality of the crime, as is noticeably the situation in a majority of cases reaching the appellate stage.

The Court held, "The lack of forthcoming information has led to attempts by the courts, to look backwards – sometimes many years after the crime has been committed – to evaluate on the one hand, circumstances that could not have been paused in time, and on the other those which can be captured, but for which there exists no frame of reference from the past, for comparison. This inconsistency in some courts calling for reports, while others fail to – further contributes to our patchwork jurisprudence on capital sentencing, and in turn undermines the equality principle and due process protection..."

The Bench noted that the unfortunate reality is that in the absence of well-documented mitigating circumstances at the trial level, the aggravating circumstances seem far more compelling, or overwhelming, rendering the sentencing court prone to imposing the death penalty that is false and incorrect.

Hence, as a small step to correct these skewed results and facilitate better evaluation of whether there is a possibility for the accused to be reformed, the Apex Court deemed it necessary to frame guidelines for the Courts to adopt and implement till the legislature and executive, formulate a coherent framework through legislation.

The Court also added that these guidelines would offer guidance or ideas from which the legislative framework could benefit from to systematically collect and evaluate information on mitigating circumstances.

In this context, the Court further held that in order to achieve this, the Trial Court and the State must elicit information from the accused and the state, both.

The Bench comprising Justice UU Lalit, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, and Justice Bela M. Trivedi, observed -

"The state, must - for an offence carrying capital punishment - at the appropriate stage, produce material which is preferably collected beforehand, before the Sessions Court disclosing psychiatric and psychological evaluation of the accused. This will help establish proximity (in terms of timeline), to the accused person's frame of mind (or mental illness, if any) at the time of committing the crime and offer guidance on mitigating factors."

The Court further noted that the next step is for the State must in a time-bound manner, collect additional information pertaining to the accused of which the illustrative list is as follows -

i) Age,

ii) Early Family Background,(siblings, protection of parents, any history of violence or neglect)

iii) Present family background (surviving family members, whether married, has children, etc.)

iv) Type and level of education

v) Socio-economic background (including conditions of poverty or deprivation, if any)

vi) Criminal antecedents (details of offence and whether convicted, sentence served, if any)

vii) Income and the kind of employment (whether none, or temporary or permanent etc);

viii) Other factors such as history of unstable social behaviour, or mental or psychological ailment(s), alienation of the individual (with reasons, if any) etc.

The Bench held that this information should be mandatorily available to the Trial Court.

The Court also noted that the accused too should be given the same opportunity to produce evidence in rebuttal, towards establishing all mitigating circumstances.

"Lastly, information regarding the accused's jail conduct and behaviour, work done (if any), activities the accused has involved themselves in, and other related details should be called for in the form of a report from the relevant jail authorities (i.e., probation and welfare officer, superintendent of jail, etc.). If the appeal is heard after a long hiatus from the trial court's conviction, or High Court's confirmation, as the case may be – a fresh report (rather than the one used by the previous court) from the jail authorities is recommended, for an more exact and complete understanding of the contemporaneous progress made by the accused, in the time elapsed. The jail authorities must also include a fresh psychiatric and psychological report which will further evidence the informative progress, and reveal post-conviction mental illness, if any," the Court held.

The Court noted that these guidelines must be implemented uniformly, as elaborated for conviction of offences that carry the possibility of death sentence.

In this case, the appellants (accused) were facing trial for offences punishable under Section 302, 397 and 449 of Indian Penal Code and Section 25 and 27 of Arms Act. The Trial Court after perusing all the evidence convicted the three accused with the charged offences and sentenced them with a death penalty. The appellants then approached the Madhya Pradesh High Court where the Court confirmed the sentences imposed by the Trial Court.

Aggrieved, the appellants - accused approached the Apex Court.

Ms. Anjana Prakash and Mr. Shri Singh, Counsels appeared on behalf of the appellants, while Additional Advocate General (AAG) Ms. Swarupama Chaturvedi appeared on behalf of the State

The Supreme Court also stated that in the interests of fairness, the Prosecution, as a matter of rule, in all criminal trials, should furnish the list of statements, documents, material objects and exhibits which are not relied upon by the investigating officer.

The Supreme Court also observed that the mitigating circumstances were not taken into consideration by the Trial Court and stated that "Swayed by the brutality of the crime and "shock of the collective and judicial conscience", the High Court affirmed imposition of the death penalty solely on the basis of the aggravating circumstances of the crime, with negligible consideration of mitigating circumstances of the criminal. This is in direct contravention of Bachan Singh.

The Supreme Court finally held that "While there is no doubt that this case captured the attention and indignation of the society in Indore, and perhaps the state of Madhya Pradesh, as a cruel crime that raised alarm regarding safety within the community – it must be remembered that public opinion has categorically been held to be neither an objective circumstance relating to crime, nor the criminal, and the courts must exercise judicial restraint and play a balancing role."

The Supreme Court thus partly allowed the appeal and commuted the death sentence of the three accused to life imprisonment for a minimum term of 25 years.

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