Mitigating circumstances & crime

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Poverty could mitigate crime, even murder: SC

From the archives of The Times of India 2007, 2009 2010

Dhananjay Mahapatra | TNN

New Delhi: The law is supposed to be enforced uniformly, and without sorting the guilty on the basis of their economic and social background. On Monday, however, the Supreme Court said that economic status of a murder convict needs to be taken into account to determine whether he should be awarded death penalty or life sentence, even in respect of offences falling in the “rarest of rare” category.

In an order that is sure to spark a debate, the court said poor background of the accused should — along with old age and years spent behind bars while awaiting death sentence — be considered as mitigating factors when courts ponder whether life sentence should be used in an otherwise fit case for death penalty.

The order was passed by a Bench comprising Justices P Sathasivam and H L Dattu while hearing an appeal against death penalty awarded by the trial court and subsequently upheld by the Allahabad high court to two members of a gang of bandits convicted for killing four people in December 1995.

The Bench noted that apart from being old, the convicts had been in custody since 1996 and death penalty had hung over their heads since 2005, when the trial court gave its verdict.

Honour killings to be distinct offence

The UPA government is readying an amendment to the Indian Penal Code to make honour killings a ‘‘distinct offence’’ so that deterrent punishment can be handed out to khap panchayats that order death penalty for young couples who marry defying caste barriers. The bill will look at distinguishing honour killings from ordinary murders by widening its definition under Section 302. P 14

‘Poor criminals likely to reform’

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday considered poverty as a mitigating factor while handing out the verdict on two bandits awarded death penalty by lower courts. “The convicts (Mulla and Guddu) belong to an extremely poor background. One thing which is clear to us is that they have committed these crimes for want of money. Though we are shocked by their deeds, we find no reason why they cannot be reformed over a period of time,” a Bench comprising Justices P Sathasivam and H L Dattu said.

Courts have always treated old age and the duration of incarceration as attenuating considerations while settling ‘life sentence or death penalty’ question, but it is the first time that the apex court has introduced affluence or lack of it in play.

Justice Sathasivam, writing the judgment for the Bench, stressed that the SC was not suggesting that economic deprivation could be a justification for moral depravity as shown by the two convicts. But he also said that “we certainly recognise that in the real world, such factors may lead a person to crime”.

“Therefore, we believe, socio-economic factors might not dilute guilt, but they may amount to mitigating circumstances. Socio-economic factors lead us to another related mitigating factor, that is, the ability of the guilty to reform,” the Bench said.

The court also seemed to suggest that since poor commit crimes because of compulsion, they are more likely to mend. “It may not be misplaced to note that a criminal who commits crimes due to his economic backwardness is most likely to reform. This court on many previous occasions has held that this ability to reform amounts to a mitigating factor in cases of death penalty,” it said.

While substituting the death sentence awarded to Mulla and Guddu to life imprisonment, the Bench said, “The punishment of life sentence in this case must extend to their full life, subject to any remission by the government for good reason.”

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