Current Trends In Law: Socio -economic condition By Adv. R.S. Agrawal

Quite recently, in a very significant judgment delivered by the Supreme Court on December 12, 2018, it has declared in the case – M.A. Antony alias Antappan v. State of Kerala, that the Trial Court as well as the High Court, while considering the punishment to be given to the appellant, ought to have taken into consideration his socio-economic condition, as it was a significant factor.

According to a 3-judge Bench of the Court consisting of Justice Madan B. Lokur, Justice S. Abdul Nazeer and Justice Deepak Gupta,  while the socio-economic condition of a convict is not a factor for disproving his guilt, it is a factor that must be taken into consideration for the purposes of awarding an appropriate sentence to a convict.

On the intervening night of January 6 and 7, 2001, when inmates of  Aluva town in Ernakulam district  of Kerala were in deep sleep, in the midst of the town at Manjooran House, a ghastly crime took place. Six members of a family lost their lives in a matter of three hours.

As the appellant Antony , in search of greener pastures abroad  and for that purpose ,he needed money but  was refused to be paid by that family, and therefore, as per the prosecution’s version he used knife, axe and electrocuted and strangulated Kochurani  and Clara at about 10 in the night of January 6, 2001 and Augustine , his wife Mary, and their children- Divya and Jesmon  and by midnight the House turned into a graveyard.

The prosecution has alleged that these murders were cold blooded, planned and executed with precision and the appellant ensured that there is no trace of life left in them before he left the scene of occurrence. When put to trial for murders, appellant, however, pleaded innocence and claimed trial.

After trial, the Sessions Court at Ernakulam found the accused guilty of the offences and convicted him by judgment and order on January 31, 2005. It appears that submissions on the question whether the appellant should be awarded life sentence or death sentence were addressed on the same day or immediately thereafter since on February 2, 2005, the Trial Judge sentenced the appellant “to be hanged by the neck till he is dead”.

The conviction and sentence came up for confirmation before the High Court of Kerala, which confirmed the death sentence and dismissed the appeal of the appellant on September 18, 2006, taking the view that the crime committed by the appellant was most cruel and diabolical. It was observed that he had no respect, no care, no dignity, no mercy for human life and his living in this world is most dangerous to society.

Feeling aggrieved by his conviction and confirmation of the death sentence, the appellant moved the Supreme Court, which was dismissed by a judgment and order on April 22, 2009.This Court did not at all advert to or discuss the quantum of sentence awarded to the applicant. The appeal was decided on its facts and dismissed.

Thereafter, the appellant preferred Review Petition (Cr.) but that was dismissed by an order on April 13, 2010.After decision of the Supreme Court in the case – Mohd. Arif alias Ashfaq v. The Registrar Supreme Court of India & Others – (2014) 9 SCC 737, the said review petition was re-opened for consideration.

According to the Apex-Court, there is absolutely nothing on record to show that the appellant had previously committed any crime whatsoever. Indeed, there is nothing on record to even suggest that the appellant is a hardened criminal.

Apart from other submissions, it was contended by the appellant’s counsel that the socio-economic circumstances relating to the appellant are relevant for an objective consideration of the award of sentence and these were not considered by any court including the Supreme Court.

It was submitted that the “collective conscience of the society” and reference to it for the purposes of imposition of a sentence is totally misplaced. It is not possible to determine public opinion through evidence recorded in a trial for offence of murder and it is even more difficult, if not impossible, to determine something as amorphous as the collective conscience of the society.

Finally, it was submitted that the appellant has been in custody for a considerable period of time and that by itself is a good ground for commutation of his sentence from death to life imprisonment. In this context, it was stated that the appellant was arrested on February 18, 2001. He remained in custody till he was granted bail on January 25, 2002. He was arrested again when the trial court convicted him on January 31, 2005 and since then he is continuously in custody having spent about 14 years in custody and about 3 years on bail.

There is enough case law to suggest that socio-economic factors concerning a convict must be taken into consideration while taking a decision on whether to award sentence of death or to award a sentence of imprisonment for life.

The Court has stated that it does not think it necessary to consider with reference to facts of this case the period of incarceration of the appellant as a factor for deciding whether or not he should be awarded the death sentence. This is a factor, which ought to have been placed before the Trial Judge and while the Court could certainly take this into consideration, it hesitates to do so in view of some uncertainty in this regard.

In the judgment of the case – Ramesh v. State of Rajasthan –(2011) 3 SCC 685 an opinion was expressed in paragraph 76 of the Report that since the appellant therein had been languishing on death row for more than six years that would be a mitigating circumstance in his favour.

There are a number of cases where convicts have been on death row for more than six years and if a standard period was to be adopted, perhaps each and every person on death row might have to be given the benefit of commutation of death sentence to one of life imprisonment. The long delays in courts must, of course, be taken into account, but what is needed is a systemic and systematic reform in criminal justice delivery rather than ad hoc or judge-centric decisions.

In view of this discussion, the death sentence awarded to the appellant has been converted into a sentence of imprisonment for life  by the Supreme Court and it also disposed of the petition accordingly.

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