In the past few years, the Government has brought a number of legal advancements, policy reforms for protection of women from various sources of violence and atrocities and schemes for launching women helpline, prevention of trafficking and sexual exploitation, for setting up of one stop centres to assist women affected by violence, etc. The courts have also awarded stringent punishments to offenders who commit offences against women including death penalty in the rarest of rare cases.
The Supreme Court, in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab 1980, had laid down that life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception and thus, certain guidelines should be followed before a court may award death penalty:
- Only in the gravest cases of extreme culpability, this extreme penalty of death may be awarded;
- The circumstances of the offender along with the circumstances of the crime have to be taken into consideration.
- When the sentence of life imprisonment seems inadequate having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime, only then death sentence may be awarded; and
- The aggravating and the mitigating circumstances have to be balanced.
Whereas, in Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab 1983, the Supreme Court had held that in the rarest of rare cases, when the collective conscience of the community is so shocked that it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty, then death penalty may be sanctioned.
Applying the aforesaid principles, the Supreme Court in a recent judgment of Mukesh and another vs. State of NCT of Delhi 2017 (Nirbhaya case) involving the brutal rape and murder of para-medical student, has taken into consideration all the evidences and investigation reports including the dying declaration, statements of witnesses, medical examination reports, etc. The mitigating factors as contended by the appellants include absence of pre-meditation to commit a crime of the present nature, poverty-stricken background, no criminal antecedents, the suffering that their family will face if they are awarded death sentence, etc. Whereas, the aggravating circumstances include the brutal and barbaric nature of the crime involving assault on the deceased victim with iron rods, pulling out vital organs, sexual violence, etc that would have caused her extreme mental and physical trauma, that ultimately, led to her death. These circumstances led to the indictment and death penalty of some of the rapists.
According to the Supreme Court, the medical reports and other evidences have established the fact that the accused persons had treated the deceased-victim in a devilish and perverse manner, which is bound to shock the collective conscience of the community. Thus, the Court has held that the aggravating circumstances have outweighed the mitigating factors, and as a result, this case has fallen under the ‘rarest of rare case’ category. Therefore, the SC upheld the order of the High Court to sentence the accused persons to death.