Death Penalty Abolition Debate

A new track for capital punishment jurisprudence


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Rarest of rare case

Mains level: Paper 2- Capital punishment jurisprudence


A recent trend in the evolution of jurisprudence around the death penalty in India may reset judicial thinking around sentencing and have long-term ramifications in the awarding of capital punishment.

New thinking in the jurisprudence around capital punishment

  • Capital punishment once delivered by the court of sessions (“sentencing court”) is required under law, specifically Chapter 28 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, to be confirmed by the jurisdictional High Court (“confirming court”).
  • Over the last six months or so, while dealing with appeals against confirmation of the death sentence, the Supreme Court of India has examined sentencing methodology from the perspective of mitigating circumstances more closely.
  • The Court has also initiated a suo motu writ petition (criminal) to delve deep into these issues on key aspects surrounding our understanding of death penalty sentencing.
  • Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab (1980), the leading case on this point, calls for mitigating and aggravating circumstances to be balanced against each other and laid down the principle that the death penalty ought not to be awarded unless the alternative of life imprisonment is “unquestionably foreclosed”.
  • It is also an equally well-established legal principle that in a sentencing hearing, the accused must necessarily be provided with sufficient opportunity to produce any material that may have bearing on the sentencing exercise.
  • When read in conjunction with the ratio decidendi of the Bachan Singh case, it is incumbent upon the sentencing court and the confirming court to ensure that the question of reform and rehabilitation of a convicted person has been examined in detail for these courts to come to a definitive conclusion that all such options are unquestionably foreclosed.

Lack of judicial uniformity

  •  A report by the National Law University Delhi’s Project 39A (earlier known as the “Centre on the Death Penalty”) titled ‘Matters of Judgment’ found that there is no judicial uniformity or consistency when it comes to awarding the death sentence.
  •  In the report titled ‘Death Penalty Sentencing in Trial Courts’ (also authored by Project 39A), findings reported from a study of cases involving death sentencing between 2000 and 2015 in Delhi, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have showed that courts have been lax in assessing the aspect of reformation while undertaking the sentencing exercise.
  • The Court, in Mofil Khan vs State of Jharkhand (2021), held that the “the State is under a duty to procure evidence to establish that there is no possibility of reformation and rehabilitation of the accused.
  • Undoubtedly, the onus has been placed on the State to lead evidence to show that no reformation is possible and for the sentencing courts to be satisfied that a thorough mitigation analysis was done before the death sentence is awarded.

Mitigation investigation

  • For a complete mitigation investigation, professionals trained in psychology, sociology and criminology are required in addition to legal professionals.
  • Taking cognisance of the value of a holistic approach to mitigation investigation, the Court in Manoj & Ors vs State of Madhya Pradesh (2022) issued directions to the State to place before the court all “report(s) of all the probation officer(s)” relating to the accused and reports “about their conduct and nature of the work done by them” while in prison.
  •  The order also directs that a trained psychiatrist and a local professor of psychology conduct a psychiatric and psychological evaluation of the convict.


The intervention of the Supreme Court of India in, hopefully, framing guidelines around incorporation of a mitigation analysis and consideration of psycho-social reports of the prisoner at the time of sentencing is timely and necessary.

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