Death to all – the principles of sentencing in Judge Yogesh Khanna’s award of the death penalty in the Delhi gang rape trial

SohiniChatterjeeAround 2:30 p.m. on September 13, 2013, Additional Sessions Judge Yogesh Khanna awarded the death penalty to the four accused in State v. Ram Singh, marking the end of the (fast-tracked) nine-month-long trial of the accused in the Delhi gang rape case. The judge supported his award of the death penalty using two principles.

Firstly, he relied on the notion that when the collective conscience of the community is shocked, the court should award the death sentence. If the crime has been executed in a grotesque and revolting manner, it would be a failure of justice to not award death sentence. After gang raping the victim, the four accused persons had cut open her intestines using an iron rod and eventually pulled out her internal organs with their hands.

The judge said that this case fell within the Supreme Court’s “rarest of the rare cases test” because of the display of “extreme mental perversion” and “exceptional depravity of mind”. The essential distinction here is between ordinary murders and gruesome and ghastly murders. While the former warrants a life sentence, the latter warrants a death sentence. (Cases in support can be found here, here, here and here).

fournooses_deathpenaltySecondly, the aggravating factors overwhelmed the mitigating factors. The defence had put forward various mitigating factors such as the young ages of the accused, their socio-economic conditions, their clean antecedents, and their being under the influence of alcohol at the time of committing the crime, to argue for a lesser sentence. These reasons, the judge said, were neither special nor adequate. While determining the sentence in rape cases, the relevant factors should be the conduct of the accused, the state and age of the victim, and the gravity of the criminal act. The socio-economic status, religion, race, caste, or creed of the accused or the victims should be irrelevant considerations in sentencing. (Cases in support can be found here, here, and here).

According to the judge, the aggravating factors in this case outdid the mitigating factors. The demonstration of exceptional brutality, the extreme misery inflicted on the victim, and the grave impact of the crime on social order were some of these factors.

One particular aggravating factor deserves special mention – the manner in which the crime aroused “intense and extreme indignation of society”. The imposition of the death penalty by any court is not “judge-centric”. The satisfaction of the “rarest of the rare” test largely depends on the social approval for the death sentence for certain types of crimes. The judge relied heavily on a recent decision, in which the Supreme Court said that while determining whether a particular crime warrants a death sentence or not, the court has to look into factors such as society’s abhorrence and extreme indignation towards particular crimes. In my opinion, the judge’s recognition of social responses as an aggravating factor is commendable and shows the tremendous impact that the numerous civil society led protests, demonstrations, and debates that followed the horrific rape have had. The media was the primary vehicle for the communication of these protests and this case also highlights the media’s potential to affect sentencing.

(Sohini Chatterjee is a third-year student at the WBNUJS, Kolkata. She is a member of the NUJS Law Review.)


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