New Delhi: In a landmark verdict that can come as a relief to many death row convicts, the Supreme Court today held that death sentence of a condemned prisoner can be commuted to life imprisonment on the ground of delay on the part of the government in deciding the mercy plea.
Giving life term to 15 death row inmates, including four aides of forest brigand Veerappan, the apex court also ruled that a death convict suffering from mental insanity and schizophrenia cannot be hanged.
It overruled its own verdict in Khalistani terrorist Devinderpal Singh Bhullar’s case in which it had held that delay in deciding mercy plea cannot be a ground for commutation of death sentence.
Death sentence in such cases can be commuted to life imprisonment on the ground of their mental illness, it said.
Today’s judgement may have implications in various cases, including the petitions filed by three death row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case who have challenged the President’s rejection of their mercy plea less than three years ago.
Framing guidelines on disposal of mercy petitions and execution of death sentence, a bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam ruled that convicts given death sentence must be informed about the rejection of their mercy pleas and should be given a chance to meet their family members before they are executed.
It also held that solitary confinement of a prisoner, including death row convict, is unconstitutional and it should not be allowed in the prisons.
The bench gave its verdict on a batch of petitions filed by 15 death row inmates seeking its direction for commutation of their sentence to life term on the grounds of delay in deciding mercy plea and mental illness.
The bench also said that execution of death sentence should be carried out only 14 days after rejection of the mercy plea.
The apex court also said that the prison authorities must provide legal aid to prisoners facing death sentence so that they can approach courts for commutation of their sentence on the ground of their illness and delay in deciding mercy plea by the government.