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Has society accepted death penalty?

CNN-IBN
Jun 20, 2007 at 04:02am IST

New Delhi: Three AIADMK workers have been sentenced to death for setting a bus on fire during a political agitation in Tamil Nadu seven years back. The verdict — pronounced by a Salem court on Friday — has sparked off an intense debate over the ethics of capital punishment all across the country.

The judgment takes the total number of death sentences, which have been awarded in last three days, to seven. The question that was being discussed on CNN-IBN's Face The Nation was: Is Indian society more accepting of death penalty now?

On the panel of experts to discuss the question were well-known Supreme Court lawyer Ram Jethmalani, who have argued several cases related to life and death; and former chief justice of India and former chairman of National Human Rights Commission J S Verma.

Denying that there is a set pattern in the increasing instances of death sentences being awarded all across the country, J S Verma said, “It is a coincidence that many such cases happen to be heard and decided at the same time”.

On the issue of lower courts pronouncing death sentences in cases like political agitation or mob fury, Verma said that in the case of a session court announcing capital punishment, it is not implemented unless it is confirmed by the High Court. So, it is the High Court, which ultimately awards the death sentence, and it is only then that it can be implemented.

On the matter of existence of death sentence, Verma said, “I think for offences that can be termed as heinous crimes — for example, the raging war against the state — death sentence should be there. But my own view is, if it is not to be there, then the life sentences should be for really whole of the remaining life and not merely a few years.”

Regarding the type of cases on which death penalty may be awarded, Verma said that “rarest of the rare” case is the formula but there is no precise definition of “rarest of the rare”. So, death sentence may be given on the basis of proper evidence, in cases that are too shocking, he added.

Blaming the media for the increasing instances of death sentences being awarded all across the country, Jethmalani said, “There is a good reason to suspect that the judiciary is responding to the pressure from the press. I won’t say that it is proved beyond doubt that it is so, but people are entitled to think that this is having a serious impact on the judicial minds.”

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On the statement of J S Verma that, “Judges are suppose to work independently”, Jethmalani said, “Nobody can dispute Mr Verma’s hypothesis that judges are suppose to act independently, but that doesn’t mean that they in fact do it”.

On the issue that the patience of civil society is running thin and nothing less than the death penalty satisfies the families of the victims, Jethmalani said that the feeling of revenge is much more natural and widespread than the feeling of mercy and compassion. So, in every case of murder, tit-for-tat or an eye-for-an-eye is the natural response. “Therefore I don’t blame society for reacting in the normal way,” said Jethmalani.

Against the question if — as a lawyer — he believes in death penalty, Jethmalani said, “According to me, invincible argument against the death penalty is - all human judgements are fallible. And even in those cases, where you are almost 100 per cent sure that a person is guilty, he may not be guilty. Therefore, the fallibility of human judgement is an argument, according to me, to which there is no answer against an irrevocable punishment like death sentence. But I have always wondered about one situation, what punishment do you give to a person, who is already under a sentence of life imprisonment and who, without a slightest justification, kills his prison warden?”

Speaking on the issue that in India, those sentenced for life actually never end up serving the sentence in its entirety, Jethmalani said, “Life punishment means that you are contemplating the possibility or reformation”. He also said, “I don’t think we have completely jettisoned the reformative aspect of punishment. If you find that a person has really reformed and jailors and doctors and other serious-minded people, who know their job, come to a conclusion that a man has able to get rid of his criminal tendencies and his tendency to use violence in his life, I don’t see why that man should be relieved earlier.”

While terming the question — if the death sentence in Dharmapuri case a proper one — as a theoretical one, Jethmalani said, “If I were a judge, I would not award a death sentence in a case like that”. Bhupendra Chaubey concluded the show by raising a crucial question — does the state really have the right to end a human life, if it doesn’t have the right to give a human life?

Final SMS poll results: Is Indian society more accepting of death penalty now?

Yes: 91 per cent

No: 9 per cent

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