New Delhi: Between December 2021 and November 2022, the Supreme Court acquitted eight men in four cases of all criminal charges (here, here, here and here)—they had not only been held guilty of serious crimes but also sentenced to death by lower courts.
These men spent an average of 10 years in prison. Both their guilt and death sentences were also confirmed by the high courts (here, here, here, and here). Far from agreeing on the question of the death sentence, the Supreme Court found little or no reliable evidence against these eight men.
Outcomes in these cases are a reminder of the unsustainability of the death penalty in India’s criminal justice system. They are a testament to the fact that we cannot dismiss the possibility of a wrongful conviction as a theoretical argument against the death penalty.
What do these cases tell us about the justice system and the use of the death penalty in such a system? What went wrong before the trial and High Courts? Can we ever give back to these eight individuals, significant years of their life that they spent in prison only to be freed of all charges? What about the impact on their families?
The victims of this injustice are not just those wrongly accused (and possibly executed) but their families, whose trauma and suffering is at best ignored, and, at worst, treated as collateral damage.
Guilt ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt’ Not Proved
For a person to be held accountable for a crime and punished, criminal law requires their guilt to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”—a standard not met in the case of these eight individuals.
These men having been held guilty by not one, but two courts can be attributed in part to the failure of the police, prosecution, and court and, in part, to their own circumstances.
An individual’s lack of finances restricts their ability to find quality legal representation, which invariably affects the outcomes of their case [see Death Penalty India Report (2016), here and here]. For instance, Ramanand was too poor to afford an experienced lawyer, and in his case, the Supreme Court noted that the quality of his legal representation in the lower courts was sub-par.
In Chotkau’s case, statements of three people who allegedly last saw the victim with him were the main pieces of evidence against him.
These witnesses were inconsistent on crucial details making their statements unreliable and far from the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard. In addition, despite being arrested for rape (along with murder), Chotkau was not subjected to medical examination, and crucial medical evidence was not brought on record.
In Ramanand’s case, the police claimed he had led them to the murder weapon. However, the legal process required to prove that such discovery was based on the information given by the accused and not staged by the police was not undertaken.
The Court noted that Ramanand had confessed before some villagers and had motive to commit the crime but none of this was proved; it was based on conjectures.
In Rahul, Ravi and Vinod’s case, the police alleged that articles related to the crime were found based on information that they provided. But the prosecution was not able to prove that these articles were actually linked to the accused or the victim.
Scientific evidence, such as DNA reports, did not meet the required legal standards essential for the court to rely upon such evidence. Police did not promptly collect and send sealed samples to the laboratory, which mean the possibility the samples were tampered with could not be ruled out.
In Momin, Jaikam and Sajid’s case, the testimonies of the two eyewitnesses were doubtful. As the Supreme Court noted, both witnesses were “interested”, meaning that they had obvious motivations to give false statements against the accused persons.
Police Manipulate Evidence; Prosecution, High Courts Fail
Not only did the police not comply with due process requirements, there were instances of the police manipulating evidence to strengthen the case against the accused persons.
Ramanand’s alleged confession to some villagers was presented as an important piece of evidence by manipulating his date of arrest to a later date. But it was evident that Ramanand was already in custody on this date and could not have made such a confession.
Similarly, in Rahul’s case, the Supreme Court pointed out that there was a cloud of doubt on the prosecution’s story as the police had possibly manipulated the circumstances of arrest.
Despite these obvious lacunae in the evidence in these cases, the prosecution also acted unfairly by proceeding to pursue both conviction and the death penalty for these eight individuals across four cases. The Supreme Court took note of this concern in its decision acquitting Chotkau by reprimanding the prosecution for pursuing a case against him “without any shred of evidence” and characterised it as “injustice” to Chotkau.
Despite the blatant gaps in investigation and evidence presented by prosecution, both the trial and High Courts convicted and sentenced these eight individuals to death. Besides, some Supreme Court decisions have also held that the death penalty should not be given unless the evidence is of unimpeachable character (see, here, here and here).
Given the extreme and irreversible nature of the punishment, every death sentence imposed by a trial court has to necessarily be sent to the respective high court for confirmation. The high court proceedings in a death penalty case are an extension of the trial itself.
A greater duty is cast on the high court in death penalty cases, which they evidently failed to discharge in these four cases.
SC Saves The Day, Does Not Set Things Right
If the Supreme Court managed to save the day by correcting the errors made by courts below, is the situation really that dire? The short answer is yes.
Not every convict gets a chance to have evidence against them be reevaluated before the Supreme Court as these men did, and hence, one can only imagine how many others like Ramanand and Chotkau are still in prison, without any hope for justice.
More importantly, the Supreme Court has not managed to set things right even for these very men it has released. Freeing these men does not erase the irreparable impact of imprisonment for years on death row on them and their families.
Some, like Jaikam and Sajid, were primary breadwinners of their families, and in their absence, their families struggled to stay afloat. Chotkau, youngest of his siblings, was the only literate member of his family and could have used the years spent in prison to seek opportunities to make a better life for his family. Even after release, these men struggle to provide for their families.
As most prisons don’t allow death row prisoners to work, these men were even denied the opportunity to develop useful skills. Momin, a plumber, finds it difficult to find employment as the ways of the work have changed.
The impact of having been on death row is not just monetary.
Having spent 12 years in prison, Ramanand did not get to see his son grow up. Nazra, Momin’s wife and co-accused who was subsequently acquitted by the High Court, was pregnant at the time of her arrest and suffered a miscarriage soon after.
Two of their youngest children never went to school, and others had to drop out and work as labourers to provide for their siblings. Now released, these men struggle to adjust to life outside prison, and the stigma of having been on death row does not help.
Incarceration, especially as a death row prisoner leaves a grave impact on mental and physical health. It is not only the anguish and uncertainty of being on death row—there are various contributors to the negative impact on mental health, such as dehumanisation, both inside and outside prison, separate treatment, denial of employment in prison, and vilification by media and society.
As many as 62.2% (51 of 82) of death row prisoners interviewed for Project 39A’s Deathworthy were found to have at least one mental illness, and over 50% (34 of 63 prisoners) spoke of contemplating suicide—much higher rates than those found in the general population.
For instance, major depressive disorder was found to be 11 times higher amongst death-row prisoners than in the general population.
Compensation A ‘Dangerous Precedent’: SC
Project 39A’s Death Penalty India Report (2016) found that 29.8% of all prisoners (443 prisoners) sentenced to death by trial courts between 2000-2015 were acquitted by the Supreme Court. These numbers fail to even garner an acknowledgment that the system needs fixing.
The Supreme Court, in spite of having repeatedly highlighted the injustice of wrongful convictions, is resistant to acting against it.
In proceedings relating to the 2002 Akshardham attack, the Supreme Court reprimanded investigating authorities for the incompetence which led to wrongful conviction and imposition of death penalty on innocent people.
This acknowledgement had no bearing on the question of compensation. The Court refused to compensate those acquitted for the decade lost behind bars, saying that this would set a “dangerous precedent”.
Wrongful convictions expose fundamental flaws in our criminal justice system—that it is primed to not only punish the perpetrators but punish the innocent.
This system begins with an investigative machinery that not only fails to conduct proper investigations, but is susceptible to manipulation and falsified evidence.
The police are often under immense pressure to immediately find the culprit, especially in serious cases involving rape and murder, which garner media and public attention. This pressure is often exacerbated by politicians who are quick to demand the strictest punishments, including the death penalty (see here, here, and here).
It is the most socio-economically deprived sections of society, with insufficient financial resources and unable to afford good legal representation, that end up becoming scapegoats. Not just wrongly held guilty of serious crimes, they are even sentenced to death in our name. It is time that the state of the Indian criminal-justice system has a bearing on our opinion of the death penalty.
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(Pratiksha Basarkar and Sakshi Jain are lawyers with Project 39A, National Law University Delhi. Project 39A was involved in the legal representation of all eight acquitted persons mentioned in this article in the Supreme Court.)