Judicial Dictionary

Aggravating circumstances

In Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, (1980) 2 SCC 684, the Court held thus:

“(a) The normal rule is that the offence of murder shall be punished with the sentence of life imprisonment. The Court can depart from that rule and impose the sentence of death only if there are special reasons for doing so. Such reasons must be recorded in writing before imposing the death sentence.

(b) While considering the question of sentence to be imposed for the offence of murder under Section 302 of the Penal Code, the Court must have regard to every relevant circumstance relating to the crime as well as the criminal. If the Court finds, but not otherwise, that the offence is of an exceptionally depraved and heinous character and constitutes, on account of its design and the manner of its execution, a source of grave danger to the society at large, the Court may impose the death sentence.”

40. In Bachan Singh case, (1980) 2 SCC 684, the Court referred to the decision in Furman v. Georgia, 33 L.Ed. 2d 346 = 408 US 238 (1972) and noted the suggestion given by the learned counsel about the aggravating and the mitigating circumstances. While discussing about the aggravating circumstances, the Court noted the aggravating circumstances suggested by the counsel which read as follows: (Bachan Singh case, (1980) 2 SCC 684, SCC p. 749, para 202)

“Aggravating circumstances.-A court may, however, in the following cases impose the penalty of death in its discretion:

(a) if the murder has been committed after previous planning and involves extreme brutality; or

(b) if the murder involves exceptional depravity; or

(c) if the murder is of a member of any of the armed forces of the Union or of a member of any police force or of any public servant and was committed-

(i) while such member or public servant was on duty; or

(ii) in consequence of anything done or attempted to be done by such member or public servant in the lawful discharge of his duty as such member or public servant whether at the time of murder he was such member or public servant, as the case may be, or had ceased to be such member or public servant; or

(d) if the murder is of a person who had acted in the lawful discharge of his duty under Section 43 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, or who had rendered assistance to a Magistrate or a police officer demanding his aid or requiring his assistance under Section 37 and Section 129 of the said Code.”

After reproducing the same, the Court opined: (SCC p. 749, para 203)

“203. Stated broadly, there can be no objection to the acceptance of these indicators but as we have indicated already, we would prefer not to fetter judicial discretion by attempting to make an exhaustive enumeration one way or the other.”

41. Thereafter, the Court referred to the suggestions pertaining to mitigating circumstances: (Bachan Singh case, (1980) 2 SCC 684, – SCC p.750 para 206)

“Mitigating circumstances.-In the exercise of its discretion in the above cases, the court shall take into account the following circumstances.-

(1) That the offence was committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.

(2) The age of the accused. If the accused is young or old, he shall not be sentenced to death.

(3) The probability that the accused would not commit criminal acts of violence as would constitute a continuing threat to society.

(4) The probability that the accused can be reformed and rehabilitated.

The State shall by evidence prove that the accused does not satisfy Conditions (3) and (4) above.

(5) That in the facts and circumstances of the case the accused believed that he was morally justified in committing the offence.

(6) That the accused acted under the duress or domination of another person.

(7) That the condition of the accused showed that he was mentally defective and that the said defect impaired his capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.”

After reproducing the above, the Court observed: (SCC p. 750, para 207)

“207. We will do no more than to say that these are undoubtedly relevant circumstances and must be given great weight in the determination of sentence.

42. In the said case, the Court has also held thus: (Bachan Singh case, (1980) 2 SCC 684, SCC p. 751, para 209)

“209. … It is, therefore, imperative to voice the concern that courts, aided by the broad illustrative guidelines indicated by us, will discharge the onerous function with evermore scrupulous care and humane concern, directed along the highroad of legislative policy outlined in Section 354(3) viz. that for persons convicted of murder, life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence an exception. 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.”

43. In Machhi Singh and others v. State of Punjab, (1983) 3 SCC 470 a three-Judge Bench has explained the concept of rarest of the rare cases by stating that: (SCC p. 487, para 32)

“32. The reasons why the community as a whole does not endorse the humanistic approach reflected in `death sentence-in-no-case’ doctrine are not far to seek. In the first place, the very humanistic edifice is constructed on the foundation of `reverence for life’ principle. When a member of the community violates this very principle by killing another member, the society may not feel itself bound by the shackles of this doctrine. Secondly, it has to be realised that every member of the community is able to live with safety without his or her own life being endangered because of the protective arm of the community and on account of the rule of law enforced by it. The very existence of the rule of law and the fear of being brought to book operates as a deterrent of those who have no scruples in killing others if it suits their ends. Every member of the community owes a debt to the community for this protection.”

44. Thereafter, after adverting to the aspects of the feeling of the community and its desire for self-preservation, the Court opined that the community may well withdraw the protection by sanctioning the death penalty. The Court in that regard ruled thus: (Machhi Singh case, (1983) 3 SCC 470, SCC p. 487, para 32)

“32. … But the community will not do so in every case. It may do so `in the rarest of rare cases’ when its collective conscience 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.”

It is apt to state here that in the said case, emphasis was laid on certain aspects, namely, manner of commission of murder, motive for commission of murder, anti-social or socially abhorrent nature of the crime, magnitude of crime and personality of the victim of murder.

45. After so enumerating, the propositions that emerged out from Bachan Singh3 were culled out which are as follows: (Machhi Singh case, (1983) 3 SCC 470, SCC p. 489, para 38)

“38. … The following propositions emerge from Bachan Singh case, (1980) 2 SCC 684:

`(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. In other words 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.”

46. Thereafter, the three-Judge Bench opined that to apply the said guidelines, the following questions are required to be answered: (Machhi Singh case, (1983) 3 SCC 470, SCC p. 489, para 39)

“(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?”

In the said case, the Court upheld the extreme penalty of death in respect of three accused persons.”

5. In the light of the principles as stated above, the facts of the present matter were considered by this Court in the Judgment under review as under:-

“57. Keeping in view the aforesaid authorities, we shall proceed to adumbrate what is the duty of the Court when the collective conscience is shocked because of the crime committed. When the crime is diabolical in nature and invites abhorrence of the collective, it shocks the judicial conscience and impels it to react keeping in view the collective conscience, cry of the community for justice and the intense indignation at the manner in which the brutal crime is committed. We are absolutely conscious that Judges while imposing sentence, should never be swayed away by any kind of individual philosophy and predilections. It should never have the flavour of Judge-centric attitude or perception. It has to satisfy the test laid down in various precedents relating to the rarest of the rare case. We are also required to pose two questions that have been stated in Machhi Singh case, (1983) 3 SCC 470.

In Ramnaresh and Others v. State of Chhattisgarh, (2012) 4 SCC 257 this Court considered the import of governing principles regarding death sentence and summed up that it is the cumulative effect of both the aggravating and mitigating circumstances that need to be taken into account. Paragraphs 76 to 81 of the decision are as under:-

“76. The law enunciated by this Court in its recent Judgments, as already noticed, adds and elaborates the principles that were stated in Bachan Singh and thereafter, in Machhi Singh. The aforesaid Judgments, primarily dissect these principles into two different compartments-one being the “aggravating circumstances” while the other being the “mitigating circumstances”. The court would consider the cumulative effect of both these aspects and normally, it may not be very appropriate for the court to decide the most significant aspect of sentencing policy with reference to one of the classes under any of the following heads while completely ignoring other classes under other heads. To balance the two is the primary duty of the court. It will be appropriate for the court to come to a final conclusion upon balancing the exercise that would help to administer the criminal justice system better and provide an effective and meaningful reasoning by the court as contemplated under Section 354(3) Cr.P.C.

Aggravating circumstances

(1) The offences relating to the commission of heinous crimes like murder, rape, armed dacoity, kidnapping, etc. by the accused with a prior record of conviction for capital felony or offences committed by the person having a substantial history of serious assaults and criminal convictions.

(2) The offence was committed while the offender was engaged in the commission of another serious offence.

(3) The offence was committed with the intention to create a fear psychosis in the public at large and was committed in a public place by a weapon or device which clearly could be hazardous to the life of more than one person.

(4) The offence of murder was committed for ransom or like offences to receive money or monetary benefits.

(5) Hired killings.

(6) The offence was committed outrageously for want only while involving inhumane treatment and torture to the victim.

(7) The offence was committed by a person while in lawful custody.

(8) The murder or the offence was committed to prevent a person lawfully carrying out his duty like arrest or custody in a place of lawful confinement of himself or another. For instance, murder is of a person who had acted in lawful discharge of his duty under Section 43 CrPC.

(9) When the crime is enormous in proportion like making an attempt of murder of the entire family or members of a particular community.

(10) When the victim is innocent, helpless or a person relies upon the trust of relationship and social norms, like a child, helpless woman, a daughter or a niece staying with a father/uncle and is inflicted with the crime by such a trusted person.

(11) When murder is committed for a motive which evidences total depravity and meanness.

(12) When there is a cold-blooded murder without provocation.

(13) The crime is committed so brutally that it pricks or shocks not only the judicial conscience but even the conscience of the society.

Mitigating circumstances

(1) The manner and circumstances in and under which the offence was committed, for example, extreme mental or emotional disturbance or extreme provocation in contradistinction to all these situations in normal course.

(2) The age of the accused is a relevant consideration but not a determinative factor by itself.

(3) The chances of the accused of not indulging in commission of the crime again and the probability of the accused being reformed and rehabilitated.

(4) The condition of the accused shows that he was mentally defective and the defect impaired his capacity to appreciate the circumstances of his criminal conduct.

(5) The circumstances which, in normal course of life, would render such a behaviour possible and could have the effect of giving rise to mental imbalance in that given situation like persistent harassment or, in fact, leading to such a peak of human behaviour that, in the facts and circumstances of the case, the accused believed that he was morally justified in committing the offence.

(6) Where the court upon proper appreciation of evidence is of the view that the crime was not committed in a preordained manner and that the death resulted in the course of commission of another crime and that there was a possibility of it being construed as consequences to the commission of the primary crime.

(7) Where it is absolutely unsafe to rely upon the testimony of a sole eyewitness though the prosecution has brought home the guilt of the accused.

77. While determining the questions relatable to sentencing policy, the court has to follow certain principles and those principles are the loadstar besides the above considerations in imposition or otherwise of the death sentence.


(1) The court has to apply the test to determine, if it was the “rarest of rare” case for imposition of a death sentence.

(2) In the opinion of the court, imposition of any other punishment i.e. life imprisonment would be completely inadequate and would not meet the ends of justice.

(3) Life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception.

(4) The option to impose sentence of imprisonment for life cannot be cautiously exercised having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime and all relevant considerations.

(5) The method (planned or otherwise) and the manner (extent of brutality and inhumanity, etc.) in which the crime was committed and the circumstances leading to commission of such heinous crime.



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