Zee Media Bureau/Ajith Vijay Kumar
New Delhi: In an landmark judgement, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that inexplicable, inordinate delay in deciding on mercy plea of a death row convict is sufficient ground for commutation of death sentence to life.
Delivering its verdict on a petition filed by 15 death row convicts – including four of Veerapppan aides – in which they had sought commutation of their death sentences as the government had not taken a decision on their mercy plea for years.
"....Mercy petitions were disposed of more expeditiously in former days than in the present times. Mostly, until 1980, the mercy petitions were decided in minimum of 15 days and in maximum of 10-11 months. Thereafter, from 1980 to 1988, the time taken in disposal of mercy petitions was gradually increased to an average of four years," a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam said.
It said that at that point the apex court intervened and passed order for speedier disposal of mercy plea.
"It is exactly at this point of time, the cases like Vatheeswaran and Triveniben were decided which gave way for developing the jurisprudence of commuting the death sentence based on undue delay...," it said, adding "obviously, the mercy petitions disposed of from 1989 to 1997 witnessed the impact of the observations in the disposal of mercy petitions".
"Since the average time taken for deciding the mercy petitions during this period was brought down to an average of 5 months from 4 years thereby paying due regard to the observations made in the decisions of this court, but unfortunately, now the history seems to be repeating itself as now the delay of maximum 12 years is seen in disposing of the mercy petitions," it said.
Veerappan aides Meesekar Madaiah, Gnanaprakash, Simon and Bilavendran, are lodged in a Karnataka jail since 2004. Haryana couple Sonia and Sanjiv who were sentenced to death for killing 13 of their relatives were also among the petitioners.
The court said that the government cannot keep mercy pleas pending for years. The court said that if there is a procedural lapse in deciding on the mercy plea of a death row convict then it can be a ground for commuting death sentence to life.
Importantly, today`s verdict may also impact the mercy pleas of Rajiv Gandhi`s assassins Murugan, Arivu and Santhan, which are pending before the top court.
The apex court also laid down important guidelines on dealing with death row convicts and their mercy pleas.
The court directed that death row convicts should not be placed under solitary confinement. Also, such convicts must be provided all legal aid if he/she wishes to submit a mercy plea.
The court also mandated respective state governments to place necessary material before the Governor while sending the mercy plea.
Once the mercy plea is rejected, it should be conveyed in writing to the convict, the court said.
"Although, no time frame can be set for the President for disposal of the mercy petition but we can certainly request the concerned Ministry to follow its own rules rigorously which can reduce, to a large extent, the delay caused," the bench added.
Noted jurist Soli Sorabjee welcomed the SC verdict. He termed it “correct and humane.”
Last year, another bench of the court had had rejected death row prisoner Devinder Singh Bhullar`s plea for a life term, on grounds that there had been a long delay in deciding on his mercy plea.