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Taking cognizance of a post-conviction mental illness plea, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgement has held this it would be a mitigating factor in commuting death sentence.

A bench of the apex court bench comprising Justices NV Ramana, Mohan M Shantanagoudar and Indira Banerjee commuted the death penalty of a man convicted in 2001 of rape and murder of two minor girls. Under Section 84 of the Indian Penal Code, insanity is a valid defence under Sec 84 of the Indian Penal Code to any crime. Mental illness has always often been pled in criminal courts with varying degrees of success but in a sui generis move, the Supreme Court has allowed the plea to be taken for a post-conviction health status.

The Review petition was filed in respect of the accused who was convicted by the Trial Court in 2001. The High Court confirmed the death sentence. In 2008, the Supreme Court had dismissed the appeal. The review petitions too were dismissed by circulation. Counsel for the accused sought the reopening of the case citing Mohd Arif v The Registrar, Supreme Court of India which binds review petitions on death sentence be heard orally by a three-judge bench.

Two issues were raised in the petition. First, the Counsel contended that since the order of conviction and order of sentence was given on the same day, the accused was not given the rightful pre-sentence hearing. The Court has laid out a cautious tale of a series of judgments on the issue while rejecting the contention.

Second issue was the phenomenon of post-conviction mental illness. The Court empathized with the fact that prisons, world over, are “difficult places to be in. The petitioner-convict has been in a prison for roughly two decades and lack of proper healthcare facility can easily aggravate minor health issues to something so conspicuous that the Court cannot turn a blind eye to it”. The Court has pointed out that there is international consensus on against the execution of individuals with mental illness. Although, the Court was not satisfied by the incomplete nature of the doctor’s report regarding the convict’s mental health, it did however place strong reliance on records dated before the commission of the crime that proved the accused had been reeling under bouts of some form of mental irritability since 1994. Prolonged incarceration seemed a rather aggravating factor to his existing mental condition.

Sentencing or punishment of any crime entails from the knowledge for the accused about the crime. Sentencing flows from the tenet of proportionality, including the vehemence of the crime to the psychology of the perpetrator. A crime committed in a state of insanity is as sentence-unworthy as punishing for the same at a stage when the criminal is himself unfit to understand the implications of his past conduct.

Court was cautious in commuting the sentence as this could be a dicta to future “ruse to escape the gallows” in so many convictions even when the nature of ailment is not as grave. Court has categorized its decision into the ‘rarest of the rare’ doctrine.

The death sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment. Keeping in mind the medical condition of the prisoner at hand, the court has emphasized on the need of treatment and not mere serving of the remainder of the sentence. Court has further directed the State Governments to provide for the prisoner’s rights, if found entitled under appropriate provisions of the Mental Health Care Act, 2017. Section 103 of the Act obligates State Governments to set up a mental health establishment in the medical wing of at least one prison in each State and Union Territory for reference and due treatment of prisoners across such State and Union Territory.

The Court has laid down guidelines to be followed in all similar cases that may crop up on future. These include :

1) Post­conviction 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.

2) Disability should be assessed by a multi­disciplinary team of qualified professionals that include experienced medical practitioners, criminologists, professionals with expertise in accused’s particular mental illness.

3) 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.

4)  The State may offer evidence to rebut such claim.

5) Court in appropriate cases could setup a panel to submit an expert report.

6) ‘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.

—India Legal Bureau

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