New Delhi: Low age of victims in rape-and-murder cases has not been considered as the "only or sufficient factor by this court" for imposing the death penalty, the Supreme Court has said referring to its verdict that had analysed 67 similar cases dealt by it in the last 40 years.
The apex court's crucial observation came on an appeal of Irappa Siddappa who was convicted and given the death penalty by a trial court. The Karnataka High Court confirmed the trial court's decision on March 6, 2017.
He was convicted for kidnapping, rape and murder of a five-year old-girl in the village of Khanapur in Karnataka in 2010 and post the incident, he had put the body of the victim in a bag and thrown it into a stream, named Bennihalla.
A bench comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao, Sanjiv Khanna and B R Gavai confirmed the conviction of Siddappa for offences including rape, murder and destruction of evidence, but set aside the award of death penalty, which was handed down by courts below on grounds including the minor age of the victim, and commuted it to life imprisonment for a period of 30 years.
"We find sufficient mitigating factors to commute the sentence of death imposed by the Sessions Court and confirmed by the High Court into imprisonment for life, with the direction that the appellant shall not be entitled to premature release/remission for the offence under Section 302 (murder) of the Code until he has undergone actual imprisonment for at least thirty years,” said the verdict penned by Justice Khanna for the bench.
It also directed that the sentences shall run concurrently and not consecutively.
The top court extensively dealt with arguments based on minor age of the victims in rape-and-murder cases and referred to the apex court's judgement in the Shatrughna Baban Meshram case in which 67 judgments of the Supreme Court in the previous 40 years were surveyed.
In these judgements, death sentence had been imposed by the trial court or the High Court for the alleged offences under Sections 376 (rape) and 302 (murder) of the IPC, and where the age of victims was below 16 years, the apex court said.
"Out of these 67 cases, this Court affirmed the award of death sentence to the accused in 15 cases. In three, ... out of said 15 cases, the death sentence was commuted to life sentence by this Court in review petitions.
“Out of the remaining 12 cases, in two cases..., the death sentence was confirmed by this Court and the review petitions were dismissed. Thus, as on date, the death sentence stands confirmed in 12 out of 67 cases where the principal offences allegedly committed were under Sections 376 and 302 IPC and where the victims were aged about 16 years or below,” it said.
Out of these 67 cases, at least in 51, the victims were aged below 12 years, it said, adding that in three cases, the death penalty was commuted to life sentence in review.
“It appears from the above data that the low age of the victim has not been considered as the only or sufficient factor by this Court for imposing a death sentence. If it were the case, then all, or almost all, 67 cases would have culminated in imposition of sentence of death on the accused,” the top court said.
It referred to various verdicts and said that though such an offence was heinous and required condemnation, it was not “rarest of the rare, so as to require the elimination of the appellant from the society.”
The state government has not shown anything to prove the likelihood that the convict would commit acts of violence as a continuing threat to society, and his conduct in the prison has been described as satisfactory, it said.
"There is no doubt that the appellant has committed an abhorrent crime, and for this we believe that incarceration for life will serve as sufficient punishment and penitence for his actions, in the absence of any material to believe that if allowed to live he poses a grave and serious threat to the society, and the imprisonment for life in our opinion would also ward off any such threat. We believe that there is hope for reformation, rehabilitation, and thus the option of imprisonment for life is certainly not foreclosed and therefore acceptable,” the bench said.