SC commutes death sentence of 15 on grounds of 'inordinate delay'

In a precedent-setting judgement, the Supreme Court today commuted the death sentence of 15 condemned prisoners to imprisonment for life, ruling that inexplicable, inordinate delay in deciding on the mercy plea of a death row convict is sufficient ground for such commutation.

The death penalty of 13 prisoners has been commuted to life on the ground of inordinate delay on part of the President of India to decide on their mercy pleas. The other two's sentences were commuted when the court found that long years on death row had made them mentally ill.

The apex court's ruling came on a petition filed by the 15 death row convicts, of which four are accused of being close associates of Veerappan, the notorious forest bandit who was killed by security forces in 2004. They argued that the government had not taken a decision on their mercy plea for years.

Veerappan aides Meesekar Madaiah, Gnanaprakash, Simon and Bilavendran are lodged in a Karnataka jail since 2004. A Haryana couple, Sonia and Sanjiv, who were sentenced to death for killing 13 of their relatives, were also among the petitioners.

A constitution bench headed by Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam said that the government cannot keep mercy pleas pending for years; and if there is a procedural lapse in deciding on the mercy plea of a death row convict then it can be ground enough for commuting the death sentence to life.

Significantly, the constitution bench said that it did not agree with the decision of another Supreme Court bench which refused to give relief to Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, who had similarly pleaded inordinate delay in deciding on his mercy petition as he was convicted for committing terrorism.

The court said that there cannot be any distinction whether a person on death row was convicted on charges of terrorism or otherwise in entertaining petitions challenging the death sentence on grounds of inordinate, unexplained and unreasonable delay in deciding mercy petitions.

It added that the president or the governor of a state, while deciding mercy petitions, were not exercising a prerogative but were discharging their constitutional obligation, and even a death row convict has a de facto right.

No quick hangings
In another equally significant ruling that will ensure that there is no repeat of an Afzal Guru-like quick execution, the court said that there has to be a 14 days' gap between the communication of the rejection of a mercy petition and the actual execution of the death sentence.

The bench said this grace time is necessary for the convict to come to terms with the reality, to make peace with God, to execute his will and also have the opportunity to meet his family members for the last time.

The court further directed that death row convicts should not be placed in solitary confinement. Also, such convicts must be provided all legal aid if they wish to submit a mercy plea.

Today's verdict may be particularly significant for Rajiv Gandhi's assassins Murugan, Arivu and Santhan, whose mercy pleas are pending for an equally long time.