The Supreme Court of India has qualified the scope and extent of the right to life enshrined in Article 21, through a series of judgments from A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, AIR 1950 SC 27 to Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597, ensuring that infringements upon life and personal liberty may only be made through “fair, just and reasonable procedure”.
So what of the procedure extinguishing life from a person who has been found guilty of capital offences? There is a comprehensive procedure under Indian law to ensure that a person sentenced to death may be afforded the maximum opportunities to present his side of the case so that he can hopefully be acquitted or his sentence commuted. A Court of Sessions, which is the competent court to record evidence and convict the accused, must cite its reasons in writing (Section 367 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973) for awarding the death sentence and must then submit that decision to the state’s High Court for confirmation (Section 366). The sentence is considered valid only after confirmation and the convict may (if the High Court certifies the case under Article 134 of the Constitution) move the Supreme Court. The convict has a right of appeal if the High Court has either (a) overturned an acquittal or lesser conviction by the Court of Sessions and awarded the death sentence or (b) withdrawn proceedings before the Court of Sessions and conducted the same in the High Court.
The Supreme Court’s review jurisdiction
Under Article 137 of the Constitution, the Court may review cases decided by them. Order XL of the Supreme Court Rules, 1966 further require review to be done in chambers (that is, by judges, conferring amongst themselves without the assistance of counsel) and based on written pleadings made by counsel.
The Supreme Court in P.N. Eswara Iyer v. Registrar, Supreme Court of India, AIR 1980 SC 808, upheld the constitutional validity of Order XL, Rule 2 (requiring review in chambers), citing the heavy burden upon the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in all cases within its jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court however, in Mohd. Arif v. Registrar, Supreme Court of India and Others, (2014) 9 SCC 737, dealt with the question of whether death sentence cases would form a class by themselves, meriting separate treatment.
The disagreement in Mohd. Arif
Writing for the majority, Justice Rohinton F. Nariman held that due to the nature of the death penalty, where:
1. the punishment is irreversible, and
2. due to lack of sentencing guidelines, it is left to various judges as to the quantum of sentence to be awarded (for instance, one judge might award the death sentence in a certain case, while another judge might sentence someone to life imprisonment for the same offence and same circumstances), sentencing was often arbitrary;
the highest standard of scrutiny was required in such cases.
Justice Rohinton F. Nariman interpreted Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer’s (the author in P.N. Eswara Iyer) ruling as allowing for such cases to be heard orally in open court. He quotes paragraph 29A of P.N. Eswara Iyer “…indeed, there is no judicial cry for extinguishment of oral argument altogether.”
However, Justice Chelameswar dissented, holding that the question of arbitrary sentencing did not arise as the same judges of the Supreme Court who passed the original judgment were required to sit on the review bench.
However, Mohd. Arif (the lead petitioner) was denied the opportunity to file a review petition himself. This was because he had already submitted a curative petition (the last option in the Supreme Court) and the Court held that to grant him a review petition now would infinitely delay the process. The review petition is filed and admittedor dismissed prior to the curative petition.
Eventually, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on January 19, 2016 allowed Arif to re-open his review petition on the ground that he would be the only person not receiving the benefit of a review petition, which would be unfair to him; further, the dismissal of the curative petition should not preclude the petitioner from receiving the benefit of a review petition in open court, no matter how slim the chance of success may be.
As one can see upon perusal of the judgment in Mohd. Arif, the purpose was to ensure that, no matter how slim, people receiving the death sentence should be given as many opportunities as permissible under the law for evidence to be re-appreciated. However, the problem that is apparent from the dissent of Justice Chelameswar is that ordinarily, the same Bench hearing the original case on merits deals with the review petition (unless any of the judges retire). It is unlikely therefore, that they would change their opinion on whether the convict should receive the death penalty; thus, the purpose of the review petition is not realised.
The purpose of the review bench, as is evident from Order XL of the Supreme Court Rules, is to merely check whether there is an error apparent on the face of the record. The composition of the bench should therefore, not matter, as the matter for appraisal should not lead to different conclusions. At the same time, the same judges having already looked into the matter once, would ordinarily not be willing to sit and review the whole case again.
Mohd. Arif is however, a pathbreaking judgment given its implications for prisoners on death row—that at the penultimate stage of proceedings at the Supreme Court, they are entitled to an open court hearing and reappreciation of evidence in their case argued by their lawyer. It remains to be seen, however, the manner in which Supreme Court deals with these petitions.
(Soham Goswami, currently in the third year at ILS Law College, Pune, is an intern at the Centre on the Death Penalty. The views expressed in this article are his alone.)