Section 302 IPC prescribes death or life imprisonment as the penalty for murder. While doing so, the Code instructs the court as to its application. The changes which the Code has undergone in the last three decades clearly indicate that Parliament is taking note of contemporary criminological thought and movement. It is not difficult to discern that in the Code, there is a definite swing towards life imprisonment. Death sentence is ordinarily ruled out and can only be imposed for “special reasons”, as provided in Section 354(3). There is another provision in the Code which also uses the significant expression “special reason”. It is Section 361. Section 360 of the 1973 Code re-enacts, in substance, Section 562 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1898 (in short “the old Code”). Section 361 which is a new provision in the Code makes it mandatory for the court to record “special reasons” for not applying the provisions of Section 360. Section 361 thus casts a duty upon the court to apply the provisions of Section 360 wherever it is possible to do so and to state “special reasons” if it does not do so. In the context of Section 360, the “special reasons” contemplated by Section 361 must be such as to compel the court to hold that it is impossible to reform and rehabilitate the offender after examining the matter with due regard to the age, character and antecedents of the offender and the circumstances in which the offence was committed. This is some indication by the legislature that reformation and rehabilitation of offenders and not mere deterrence, are now among the foremost objects of the administration of criminal justice in our country. Section 361 and Section 354(3) have both entered the statute-book at the same time and they are part of the emerging picture of acceptance by the legislature of the new trends in criminology. It would not, therefore, be wrong to assume that the personality of the offender as revealed by his age, character, antecedents and other circumstances and the tractability of the offender to reform must necessarily play the most prominent role in determining the sentence to be awarded. Special reasons must have some relation to these factors, Criminal justice deals with complex human problems and diverse human beings. A Judge has to balance the personality of the offender with the circumstances, situations and the reactions and choose the appropriate sentence to be imposed.
It should be borne in mind that before the amendment of Section 367(5) of the old Code, by the Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Act, 1955 (26 of 1955) which came into force on 1.1.1956, on a conviction for an offence punishable with death, if the court sentenced the accused to any punishment other than death, the reason why sentence of death was not passed had to be stated in the judgment. After the amendment of Section 367(5) of the old Code by Act 26 of 1955, it is not correct to hold that the normal penalty of imprisonment for life cannot be awarded in the absence of extenuating circumstances which reduce the gravity of the offence. The matter is left, after the amendment, to the discretion of the court. The court must, however, take into account all the circumstances, and state its reasons for whichever of the two sentences it imposes in its discretion. Therefore, the former rule that the normal punishment for murder is death is no longer operative and it is now within the discretion of the court to pass either of the two sentences prescribed in this section; but whichever of the two sentences he passes, the Judge must give his reasons for imposing a particular sentence. The amendment of Section 367(5) of the old Code does not affect the law regulating punishment under IPC. This amendment relates to procedure and now courts are no longer required to elaborate the reasons for not awarding the death penalty; but they cannot depart from sound judicial considerations preferring the lesser punishment.
Section 354(3) of the Code marks a significant shift in the legislative policy underlying the old Code as in force immediately before 1.4.1974, according to which both the alternative sentences of death or imprisonment for life provided for murder were normal sentences. Now, under Section 354(3) of the Code the normal punishment for murder is imprisonment for life and death penalty is an exception. The court is required to state the reasons for the sentence awarded and in the case of death sentence “special reasons” are required to be stated, that is to say, only special facts and circumstances will warrant the passing of the death sentence. It is in the light of these successive legislative changes in the Code that the judicial decisions prior to the amendment made by Act 26 of 1955 and again Act 2 of 1974 have to be understood.
Supreme Court in Ediga Anamma v. State of A.P. (1974) 4 SCC 443) has observed (SCC pp. 453-54, para 26) :
“26. Let us crystallize the positive indicators against death sentence under Indian law currently. Where the murderer is too young or too old, the clemency or penal justice helps him. Where the offender suffers from socio-economic, psychic or penal compulsions insufficient to attract a legal exception or to downgrade the crime into a lesser one, judicial commutation is permissible. Other general social pressures, warranting judicial notice, with an extenuating impact may, in special cases, induce the lesser penalty. Extraordinary features in the judicial process, such as that the death sentence has hung over the head of the culprit excruciatingly long, may persuade the court to be compassionate. Likewise, if others involved in the crime and similarly situated have received the benefit of life imprisonment or if the offence is only constructive, being under Section 302, read with Section 149, or again the accused has acted suddenly under another’s instigation, without premeditation, perhaps the court may humanely opt for life, even like where a just cause or real suspicion of wife’s infidelity pushed the criminal into the crime. On the other hand, the weapons used and the manner of their use, the horrendous features of the crime and hapless, helpless state of the victim, and the like, steel the heart of the law for a sterner sentence. We cannot obviously feed into a judicial computer all such situations since they are astrological imponderables in an imperfect and undulating society. A legal policy on life or death cannot be left for ad hoc mood or individual predilection and so we have sought to objectify to the extent possible, abandoning retributive ruthlessness, amending the deterrent creed and accenting the trend against the extreme and irrevocable penalty of putting out of life.”
In Bachan Singh’s case (supra) it has been observed that (SCC p. 751, para 209) :
“A real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life postulates resistance to taking a life through law’s instrumentality. That ought not to be done save in the rarest of rare cases when the alternative option is unquestionably foreclosed.”
A balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances has to be drawn up and in doing so the mitigating circumstances have to be accorded full weightage and a just balance has to be struck between the aggravating and the mitigating circumstances before the option is exercised. In order to apply these guidelines, inter alia, the following questions may be asked and answered, (a) is there something uncommon about the crime which renders sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence?; and (b) are the circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offender?
Another decision which illuminatingly deals with the question of death sentence is Machhi Singh’s case (supra).
In Machhi Singh (supra) and Bachan Singh (supra) cases the guidelines which are to be kept in view when considering the question whether the case belongs to the rarest of the rare category were indicated.
In Machhi Singh case (supra) it was observed (SCC p. 489, para 39) :
The following questions may be asked and answered as a test to determine the ‘rarest of the rare’ case in which death sentence can be inflicted:-
(a) Is there something uncommon about the crime which renders sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence?
(b) Are the circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favour of the offender?
The following guidelines which emerge from Bachan Singh’s case (supra) will have to be applied to the facts of each individual case where the question of imposition of death sentence arises (SCC p. 489, para 38):-
(i) The extreme penalty of death need not be inflicted except in gravest cases of extreme culpability.
(ii) Before opting for the death penalty the circumstances of the ‘offender’ also require to be taken into consideration along with the circumstances of the ‘crime’.
(iii) Life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception. Death sentence must be imposed only when life imprisonment appears to be an altogether inadequate punishment having regard to the relevant circumstances of the crime, and provided, and only provided, the option to impose sentence of imprisonment for life cannot be conscientiously exercised having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime and all the relevant circumstances.
(iv) A balance sheet of aggravating and mitigating circumstances has to be drawn up and in doing so the mitigating circumstances have to be accorded full weightage and a just balance has to be struck between the aggravating and the mitigating circumstances before the option is exercised.
In rarest of rare cases when collective conscience of the community is so shocked that it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty irrespective of their personal opinion as regards desirability or otherwise of retaining death penalty, death sentence can be awarded. The community may entertain such sentiment in the following circumstances:
(1) When the murder is committed in an extremely brutal, grotesque, diabolical, revolting or dastardly manner so as to arouse intense and extreme indignation of the community.
(2) When the murder is committed for a motive which evinces total depravity and meanness; e.g. murder by hired assassin for money or reward or a cold-blooded murder for gains of a person vis-a-vis whom the murderer is in a dominating position or in a position of trust, or murder is committed in the course for betrayal of the motherland.
(3) When murder of a member of a Scheduled Caste or minority community etc., is committed not for personal reasons but in circumstances which arouse social wrath, or in cases of ‘bride burning’ or ‘dowry deaths’ or when murder is committed in order to remarry for the sake of extracting dowry once again or to marry another woman on account of infatuation.
(4) When the crime is enormous in proportion. For instance when multiple murders, say of all or almost all the members of a family or a large number of persons of a particular caste, community, or locality, are committed.
(5) When the victim of murder is an innocent child, or a helpless woman or old or infirm person or a person vis-a-vis whom the murderer is in a dominating position or a public figure generally loved and respected by the community.
If upon taking an overall global view of all the circumstances in the light of the aforesaid propositions and taking into account the answers to the questions posed by way of the test for the rarest of rare cases, the circumstances of the case are such that death sentence is warranted, the court would proceed to do so.
A convict hovers between life and death when the question of gravity of the offence and award of adequate sentence comes up for consideration. Mankind has shifted from the state of nature towards a civilized society and it is no longer the physical opinion of the majority that takes away the liberty of a citizen by convicting him and making him suffer a sentence of imprisonment. Award of punishment following conviction at a trial in a system wedded to the rule of law is the outcome of cool deliberation in the court room after adequate hearing is afforded to the parties, accusations are brought against the accused, the prosecuted is given an opportunity of meeting the accusations by establishing his innocence. It is the outcome of cool deliberations and the screening of the material by the informed man i.e. the Judge that leads to determination of the lis.
The principle of proportion between crime and punishment is a principle of just desert that serves as the foundation of every criminal sentence that is justifiable. As a principle of criminal justice it is hardly less familiar or less important than the principle that only the guilty ought to be punished. Indeed, the requirement that punishment not be disproportionately great, which is a corollary of just desert, is dictated by the same principle that does not allow punishment of the innocent, for any punishment in excess of what is deserved for the criminal conduct is punishment without guilt.
The criminal law adheres in general to the principle of proportionality in prescribing liability according to the culpability of each kind of criminal conduct. It ordinarily allows some significant discretion to the Judge in arriving at a sentence in each case, presumably to permit sentences that reflect more subtle considerations of culpability that are raised by the special facts of each case. Judges in essence affirm that punishment ought always to fit the crime; yet in practice sentences are determined largely by other considerations. Sometimes it is the correctional needs of the perpetrator that are offered to justify a sentence. Sometimes the desirability of keeping him out of circulation, and sometimes even the traffic results of his crime. Inevitably these considerations cause a departure from just desert as the basis of punishment and create cases of apparent injustice that are serious and widespread.
Proportion between crime and punishment is a goal respected in principle, and in spite of errant notions, it remains a strong influence in the determination of sentences. The practice of punishing all serious crimes with equal severity is now unknown in civilized societies, but such a radical departure from the principle of proportionality has disappeared from the law only in recent times. Even now a single grave infraction that is thought to call for uniformly drastic measures. Anything less than a penalty of greatest severity for any serious crime is thought then to be a measure of toleration that is unwarranted and unwise. But in fact quite apart from those considerations that make punishment unjustifiable when it is out of proportion to the crime, uniformly disproportionate punishment has some very undesirable practical consequences.