New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted the death sentence of a man, convicted for kidnapping and killing a seven-year-old boy in Tamil Nadu in 2009, to 20-year imprisonment without remission.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud and comprising justices Hima Kohli and P.S. Narasimha said: “We are of the view that even though the crime committed by the petitioner is unquestionably grave and unpardonable, it is not appropriate to affirm the death sentence that was awarded to him. As we have discussed, the ‘rarest of rare’ doctrine requires that the death sentence not be imposed only by taking into account the grave nature of crime but only if there is no possibility of reformation in a criminal.”
It noted that a sentence of life imprisonment is subject to remission and in “our opinion, this would not be adequate in view of the gruesome crime committed by the petitioner”. In a 51-page judgment, the bench said, considering the facts of the case, the man must undergo life imprisonment for not less than 20 years without remission of sentence.
The Chief Justice, who authored the judgment on behalf of the bench, said it cannot be said that there is no possibility of reformation even though the petitioner has committed a ghastly crime.
He further added that several mitigating factors must be considered: the petitioner has no prior antecedents, was 23 years old when he committed the crime and has been in prison since 2009 where his conduct has been satisfactory, except for the attempt to escape prison in 2013.
“The petitioner is suffering from a case of systemic hypertension and has attempted to acquire some basic education in the form of a diploma in food catering. The acquisition of a vocation in jail has an important bearing on his ability to lead a gainful life,” noted the bench.
Commuting the death penalty, the bench said: “We do take note of the arguments regarding the sentencing hearing not having been conducted separately in the trial court and mitigating circumstances having not been considered in the appellate courts before awarding the capital punishment to the petitioner.”
The bench noted convict Sundar’s submission that he could not communicate mitigating circumstances bearing on his sentencing decision to the lawyer and his relatives, who were poor and uneducated, and as a result could not properly contest the case for him.
The apex court delivered the judgment on a review plea filed by Sundar alias Sundarrajan, who picked up the victim while he was returning from school in the school van on July 27, 2009. In September 2010, the Madras High Court had confirmed the conviction and the award of the death sentence to the accused, which was upheld by the top court on February 5, 2013.
Sundar had phoned the mother of the child demanding a ransom of Rs 5 lakh for his release. In July, 2009, the police raided Sundar’s house and arrested him along with a co-accused who was later acquitted. He confessed to strangling the boy, putting his body in a gunny bag and throwing it in the Meerankulam tank.
In 2013, Sundar moved the apex court seeking a review of his conviction for murder and also the death sentence on the basis of the decision of a constitution bench in Mohd. Arif vs Registrar, Supreme Court.
The bench also issued a notice to the inspector of police, Kammapuram police station in Cuddalore district as to why action should not be taken in pursuance to the affidavit filed in court concealing the conduct of the petitioner. It directed the registry to register the matter as a suo motu proceeding for contempt of court.
The top court said: “The duty of the court to enquire into mitigating circumstances as well as to foreclose the possibility of reformation and rehabilitation before imposing the death penalty has been highlighted in multiple judgments of this court. Despite this, in the present case, no such enquiry was conducted and the grievous nature of the crime was the only factor that was considered while awarding the death penalty.”