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Between Life and Death, the Crucial Difference

  • Date Submitted: 05/06/2013 03:15 AM
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Had the court known that Pratibha Patil was not told of the dissent in the Bhullar case, the outcome of his appeal might have been similar to that of Das’s plea
The Supreme Court, in the course of just one month, has rendered two judgments that appear to be contradictory. As both the judgments have been rendered by the same Bench, comprising two judges, they need to be studied closely, to arrive at the law.

In Bhullar, delivered on April 12, the Bench comprising Justices G.S. Singhvi and Sudhansu Jyoti Mukhopadhaya, held that the death row convict, Devender Pal Singh Bhullar, is not entitled to commutation of his death sentence into life imprisonment, even though there was undue, long delay of eight years in disposing of his mercy petition by the President.

In Mahendra Nath Das, delivered on May 1, the same Bench concluded that the convict’s death sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment because much of the inordinate delay of 12 years in the rejection of his mercy petition by the President was unexplained, and therefore, inexcusable.

Undue long delay

The source of law for both the judgments is the Supreme Court’s five-Judge Constitution Bench’s judgment in Triveniben (1989), which had held that undue long delay in execution of the sentence of death would entitle the convict to approach the Supreme Court under Article 32. The Court, however, had added a rider that it would examine only the nature of delay caused and the circumstances that ensued after the sentence was fully confirmed by the judicial process. More important, the Court had made it clear that the delay jurisdiction would not enable the Court to reopen the conclusions reached by the Court while finally maintaining the sentence of death.

In Bhullar, the Bench had held that where a person is convicted for terrorism offences, undue long delay in deciding the mercy petition cannot be considered a mitigating factor. In holding so, the Bench unwittingly transgressed the Triveniben...


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