SUPREME COURT REITERATES FACTORS TO BE CONSIDERED WHILE COMMUTING / SUBSTITUTING DEATH PENALTY WITH A LIGHTER SENTENCE
A three Judge Bench of the Supreme Court comprising of Justice Uday Umesh Lalit, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Bela M. Trivedi passed a Judgment dated 20-05-2022 in the matter of Manoj and Others vs State of Madhya Pradesh and reiterated the factors to be considered while commuting death sentence to life imprisonment / a lighter sentence in criminal matters.
In this case, one, Mr. Niranjan Deshpande (Prosecution Witness 1- PW 1) rented a portion of House No. 24, Shrinagar Main Colony, Indore from its landlord, Vishal Pandey (PW-5) around 19-06-2011. PW-1’s wife, Mrs. Megha Deshpande, daughter, Ms. Ashlesha Deshpande and mother-in-law, Mrs. Rohini Phadke were residing at the rented premises. On the same day, one, Ms. Dipti Kapil (PW-2), who was another tenant residing on the same floor, informed the landlord i.e. PW-5 that PW-1’s door was bolted from outside and that there were blood patches on the door. The landlord looked through the window and saw the dead bodies of PW-1’s wife, daughter and mother-in-law (Deceased Persons). The landlord immediately called up his neighbours and PW-1 and also informed the Police about the said incident.
A First Information Report (FIR) bearing Crime No. 401/11 was registered around 19-06-2011 at Indore Police Station by Inspector Mohan Singh Yadav (PW-31) under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 (IPC) (Punishment for murder) and Section 25 of the Arms Act 1959 (Punishment for certain offences). Upon inquiry, the Police found that the jewellery and other valuables of the Deceased Persons were missing. Around 22-06-2011, one, Neha Verma was spotted outside an ATM under suspicious circumstances by the Police around 6 pm. Upon conducing a search, the Police recovered the Deceased’s ATM card with Neha Verma and other robbed articles from her house. She then disclosed the names of the other accused persons i.e. Rahul and Manoj (Accused), who were then all arrested by the Police as they found the robbed jewellery, knife and a pistol in their possession.
After conclusion of investigation, the Police filed a final report charging the Accused of commission of offences under Sections 302 (Punishment for murder), 397 (Robbery, or dacoity, with attempt to cause death or grievous hurt) and 449 (House-trespass in order to commit offence punishable with death) IPC and Sections 25 (Punishment for certain offences) and 27 (Punishment for using arms, etc) of the Arms Act before the First Additional Sessions Judge, Indore (Trial Court) in State vs Manoj, Rahul and Neha Verma, Sessions Trial No. 536/2011.
The Trial Court observed that (1) based on circumstantial evidence, it was established that the Accused were present at the crime scene, (2) based on fingerprint expert report, it was proved that the Accused had entered the house, (3) based on chemical examination, DNA report and ballistic examination and upon recovery of firearm and knife, it was established that the said weapons were used to cause the death of the Deceased, (4) the footprints at the crime scene were found to be similar to the shoes recovered from the Accused, (5) the blood of the Deceased Persons was found on the Accused’s clothes, etc. Hence, the Trial Court vide Judgment dated 13-12-2013 convicted the Accused of committing the offences charged with and awarded death penalty.
Aggrieved, the Accused filed an Appeal before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh at Indore in Manoj and Others vs State of M.P., Criminal Appeal No. 3 of 2014. The High Court vide Judgment dated 29-09-2014 upheld the conviction as the Prosecution had established the offence committed by the Accused beyond reasonable doubt i.e. the presence of the accused in the bungalow, their intention of committing such heinous crime, the manner in which the accused persons had destroyed the evidence ie., knife and blood stained clothes, shoes, thrown mobile and camera …. and finally the conduct of the accused prior to and after commission of the crime have been established by the prosecution. The High Court further confirmed the death sentence awarded to the Accused.
Aggrieved by the High Court Judgment dated 29-09-2014 convicting and imposing death penalty upon the Accused, they filed a Criminal Appeal before the Supreme Court. The Apex Court made the following observations in this case:
1) That in this case, Sub-Inspector Deepika Shinde (Investigating Officer) was said to have exercised her professional skill and technique to find out that Accused Neha Verma had been using her father’s mobile to regularly call and speak to the Deceased Megha Deshpande, prior to the incident. Upon analysis of the phone calls, the said Investigating Officer connected Neha Verma to the said incident. She then extracted information about the other Accused from Neha Verma during the interrogation. In view of her professional excellence and perseverance, she and other few officers were given out of turn promotion.
2) Further, the Investigating Officer had received information / tip-off about Neha Verma’s attire and likely whereabouts on 22-06-2011, from where she was ultimately arrested.
3) However, the Prosecution kept all the aforesaid details about analysis of call details, interrogation of Neha Verma by the Investigating Officer etc, away from the trial for reasons best known to them. The Prosecution version produced before the Trial Court did not mention anything about the aforesaid details or about the interrogation conducted by the Investigating Officer.
4) This seemed mystifying and concerning as the Prosecution could not establish as to how the Investigating Officer got to know the accurate details of whereabouts of Neha Verma and also, details about the so-called interrogation. The Investigating Officer in fact could not clearly state in her deposition whether she had interrogated Neha Verma and whether she had analysed the call records of the Accused persons.
5) Hence, the Supreme Court held that the Prosecution version with respect to Neha Verma’s arrest and interrogation could not be believed.
6) That in so far as the arrest of the other Accused on 22-06-2011 was concerned, the Police could not clearly depose the particulars of the houses that they went to search. Also, the Prosecution could not explain the reason for piecemeal recoveries of stolen articles, etc from the Accused’s house between 22-06-2011 and 23-06-2011. The stolen articles, clothes of the Accused, etc were all recovered from open places and not some hidden spots but still there was unexplained delay in recovering such articles.
7) Thus, the Apex Court held that the Trial Court ought to have delved deeper into the role of the Investigating Officer in the arrest of Neha Verma. Failing which, the Accused’s right to fair investigation and trial would be prejudiced.
8) However, the testimonies of other prosecution witnesses, fingerprint expert report, ballistic report, DNA evidence, etc proved the common intention of all three Accused to commit the crime. Hence, their conviction has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
9) That in so far as capital punishment awarded to the Accused is concerned, the Apex Court held that courts while deciding whether death sentence is to be awarded, ought to consider (i) various factors to determine the nature and gravity of the crime such as manner of commission of murder, motive, anti-social or socially abhorrent nature of the crime, magnitude of crime, and personality of victim for analysing the aggravating circumstances of the crime and (2) also determine if the option of life imprisonment suffice or not.
10) Further, the courts ought to give due consideration to (a) the psychiatric and psychological state of the accused at the time of commission of the crime, (b) age and family background, (c) education level, (d) socio-economic background, (e) criminal antecedents, (f) employment, if any, (g) accused’s jail conduct, etc.
11) Based on the aforesaid factors, court ought to decide whether it is a ‘rarest-of-the-rare’ crime and accordingly, award death penalty or a lesser sentence, etc.
12) In this case, the Apex Court observed that (i) the crime committed by the Accused was brutal and outrageous, (ii) the three Deceased were women of different age groups (22, 46 and 76 years) who were caught off-guard and were badly assaulted in their own house, which resulted in their death, (iii) the manner of commission of offence was spiteful and pitiless and these circumstances were held to be aggravating in nature. However, mitigating circumstances also have to be considered. The psychological evaluation report of the Accused persons reveal that each of them were otherwise disciplined in their lives but at times have got into fights and altercations with people, but after counselling, their behaviour had improved.
Thus, the Supreme Court observed that the young age, the lack of criminal antecedents and other socio-economic factors of the Accused indicate the probability of their reformation. Further, based on the aforesaid observations, as the brutality of the crime in the present case had not come as a shock of the collective and judicial conscience, hence, the Apex Court held that the Trial Court awarding death sentence to the Accused and the High Court upholding the same, was unwarranted. Thus, in the interest of justice, the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment for a minimum term of 25 years. As a result, the Appeals were partly allowed.
The Indian Lawyer
Sushila Ram Varma
The Indian Lawyer