Accused ‘X’ v. State of Maharashtra - Supreme Court Important Judgment 2019
Accused ‘X’ v. State of Maharashtra - Supreme Court Important Judgment 2019 -
On 12th April, 2019, in the case of Accused ‘X’ v. State of Maharashtra [Review Petition (Criminal) No. 301 of 2008 in Criminal Appeal No.680 of 2007], where the Petitioner was convicted by the Courts below for kidnapping, rape and murder of two minor girls, and sentenced to death, a three Judge Bench of the Supreme Court examined issues pertaining to (i) non-compliance of Section 235(2) CrPC during the sentencing process and (ii) sentencing of persons suffering from post-conviction mental illness or insanity.
With reference to the first issue, the principle argument advanced by the Petitioner was that, since the order of conviction and the order of sentence in the present case were passed on the same day, no opportunity was awarded to the Petitioner with regard to the sentence imposed upon him, and therefore, the order of sentence passed in the present case was in violation of Section 235(2) CrPC, which was an illegality vitiating the entire sentence. The Bench held that “as long as the spirit and purpose of Section 235(2) is met, inasmuch as the accused is afforded a real and effective opportunity to plead his case with respect to sentencing, whether simply by way of oral submissions or by also bringing pertinent material on record, there is no bar on the pre-sentencing hearing taking place on the same day as the pre-conviction hearing. Depending on the facts and circumstances, a separate date may be required for hearing on sentence, but it is equally permissible to argue on the question of sentence on the same day if the parties wish to do so.” It was held that “even assuming that a procedural irregularity is committed by the trial court to a certain extent on the question of hearing on sentence, the violation can be remedied by the appellate Court by providing sufficient opportunity of being heard on sentence.
After discussing out the law on pre-sentencing, the Bench laid down the following dicta-
“i. That the term ‘hearing’ occurring under Section 235 (2) requires the accused and prosecution at their option, to be given a meaningful opportunity.
ii. Meaningful hearing under Section 235 (2) of CrPC, in the usual course, is not conditional upon time or number of days granted for the same. It is to be measured qualitatively and not quantitatively.
iii. The trial court need to comply with the mandate of Section 235 (2) of CrPC with best efforts.
iv. Non-compliance can be rectified at the appellate stage as well, by providing meaningful opportunity.
v. If such an opportunity is not provided by the trial court, the appellate court needs to balance various considerations and either afford an opportunity before itself or remand back to trial court, in appropriate case, for fresh consideration.
vi. However, the accused need to satisfy the appellate courts, inter alia by pleading on the grounds as to existence of mitigating circumstances, for its further consideration.
vii. Being aware of certain harsh realities such as long protracted delays or jail appeals through legal aid etc., wherein the appellate court, in appropriate cases, may take recourse of independent enquiries on relevant facts ordered by the court itself.
viii. If no such grounds are brought by the accused before the appellate courts, then it is not obligated to take recourse under Section 235 (2) of CrPC.”
On the question whether the Petitioner was given an effective opportunity to place material on record relevant to the quantum of sentence, the Bench observed that “the record in the instant matter” “clearly shows that the accused was accorded a real and effective opportunity at the trial stage itself” and “that the opportunity granted to the Petitioner by the High Court to adduce further material on this aspect was above and beyond the requirement of Section 235(2).” It further observed that “the Courts had taken all the attendant circumstances into account before reaching the conclusion of awarding the death penalty” and it was “also not the case that the accused made a request for hearing on sentencing on a separate date and the same was refused.” In such circumstances, the contention that the procedure envisaged in Section 235(2) CrPC was not complied with, was rejected by the Bench.
With reference to the second issue, namely, post-conviction mental illness and its impact on sentencing, the Bench laid out the following directions, to be followed in the future cases.
“a. That the post-conviction severe mental illness will be a mitigating factor that the appellate Court, in appropriate cases, needs to consider while sentencing an accused to death penalty.
b. The assessment of such disability should be conducted by a multi-disciplinary team of qualified professionals (experienced medical practitioners, criminologists etc), including professional with expertise in accused’s particular mental illness.
c. The burden is on the accused to prove by a preponderance of clear evidence that he is suffering with severe mental illness. The accused has to demonstrate active, residual or prodromal symptoms, that the severe mental disability was manifesting.
d. The State may offer evidence to rebut such claim.
e. Court in appropriate cases could setup a panel to submit an expert report.
f. ‘Test of severity’ envisaged herein predicates that the offender needs to have a severe mental illness or disability, which simply means that objectively the illness needs to be most serious that the accused cannot understand or comprehend the nature and purpose behind the imposition of such punishment.”
In the case at hand, the Bench noted that the accused had “been reeling under bouts of some form of mental irritability since 1994, as apparent from the records placed” and “moreover”, he had “suffered long incarceration as well as a death row convict.” In the totality of circumstances, the Bench did not consider it “appropriate to constitute a panel for re-assessment of his mental condition”, however, at the same time, also observed that it “cannot lose sight of the fact that a sentence of life imprisonment simpliciter would be grossly inadequate in the instant case.”
The Bench observed that “given the barbaric and brutal manner of commission of the crime, the gravity of the offence itself, the abuse of the victims’ trust by the Petitioner, and his tendency to commit such offences as is evident from his past conduct, it is extremely clear that the Petitioner poses such a grave threat to society that he cannot be allowed to roam free at any point whatsoever.” In this view of the matter, the Bench deemed “it fit to direct that the Petitioner shall remain in prison for the remainder of his life” observing that “such an approach” was “perfectly within its power to adopt, and that it acts as a useful via media between the imposition of the death penalty and life imprisonment simpliciter (which usually works out to 14 years in prison upon remission).” Accordingly, the sentence of death awarded to the Petitioner was “commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life sans any right to remission.”
Further, the Supreme Court observed that generally, “prisoners tend to have increased affinity to mental illness, and “in order to address the same, the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 was brought into force” and further that “the State Governments are obliged under Section 103 of the Act to setup a mental health establishment in the medical wing of at least one prison in each State and Union Territory, and prisoners with mental illness may ordinarily be referred to and cared for in the said mental health establishment.” Accordingly, the State Government was directed to consider the case of the Petitioner “under the appropriate provisions of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 and if found entitled, provide for his rights under that enactment”.