Seityabhama Rape and Murder Case: Fashioning a just punishment
The 2nd part of the order of the learned court that the accused shall not be released in any manner till he completes 20 years of imprisonment is inconsistent with the settled legal position.
Sentencing is the final stage in a criminal trial in which a learned, fair and impartial judge determines the appropriate sentence for each offender who has been convicted of a crime. In the Indian criminal justice system, as a general rule, the key determinants of sentences are the seriousness of the offence, the manner in which the crime was committed, age of the victim and the character of the offender. The judge plays a significant role in the process by exercising his discretion to tailor sentences to fit the offenders and their crimes. In his order, the judge deliberately fashions a sentence that reflects the facts and circumstances of the case, the background and blameworthiness of the offender, and the judge’s own idea of punishment. In doing so, however, he has to follow the legislative restrictions and sentencing guidelines settled by the higher courts prevalent in the country. The present article examines the sentences passed by the learned Sessions Judge, Imphal East in Sessions Trial No. 2 of 2019, in connection with rape and murder of a Junior Research Fellow of RIMS, delivered on December 21, 2020, in the light of settled sentencing guidelines as pronounced in various decisions of the Supreme Court of India.
Conviction and sentence hearing of the case
In the instant case, the trial court held the accused No 1, Kshetrimayum Biju Meitei @ Hollendro guilty under sections 120B, 302 and 376 of the Indian Penal Code for committing conspiracy with accused no.2 to murder the victim woman namely Ningombam Seityabhama Devi and in furtherance of the conspiracy, he committed the murder of the victim after raping her. The trial court found the accused no.2 guilty under sections 120B, and 302 of the Indian Penal Code for committing conspiracy to murder the victim. As there were no direct evidences to prove the offences, the conviction was based on circumstantial evidences and the trial court also relied on the last seen theory. The trial court in a detailed judgment ultimately held that the prosecution has proved all circumstances beyond reasonable doubt and both the accused shared common intention in the murder of the victim. The judgment for guilt determination was passed on December 14, 2020, and sentence hearing was held on December 21, 2020. It was on record that the learned counsels of the accused persons sought some more time for the study of the judgment delivered by the court. However, the same was rejected by the court. The record shows that the copy of the judgment dated 14-12-2020 was furnished on the same day to the counsel of accused no.1, in his Pen drive and further on 19-12-2020 copies of the judgments were furnished to both the accused persons as well as another copy of the Judgment to the counsel of accused No.2.
The aggravating circumstances are rape and murder of a young woman. During the sentence hearing, learned Special Public Prosecutor submitted that both the accused persons committed very serious offences and as such they be awarded sentence of life imprisonment as provided under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code. Prosecution also submitted that the deceased had been serving as a Junior Research Fellow in Pathology Department, RIMS during her lifetime getting a fellowship of Rs.40,000/- per month, from which she helped her family but all her income had lost and prayed for awarding adequate compensation. The mitigating circumstances in favour of the accused no.1 are that he was aged about 28 years and also a married person at that relevant time. He was the only bread earner of his family and only son of his parents who are now undergoing treatments. There was no criminal antecedent against the accused. For accused no. 2, he has a family to look after and there was no criminal antecedent against the accused except the present case. The defense, therefore, prayed that they may be awarded lesser punishment.
Quantum of punishment
After considering the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, the trial court awarded life imprisonment to the convicts on all counts. The convict/accused No.1, Kshetrimayum Biju Meitei @ Hollendro was sentenced to life imprisonment with a fine of Rs.20,000 (Rupees twenty thousand) under section 120B of IPC and in default of payment of fine, the accused has to undergo 3 (three) months simple imprisonment. The convict/accused No.1 was also sentenced to rigorous imprisonment of life and a fine of Rs.20,000 (Rupees twenty thousand) under section 376 r/w 376A of IPC and in default of payment of fine, the accused has to undergo 3 (three) months simple imprisonment and that the accused shall not be released in any manner till he completes 20 years of imprisonment (emphasis is mine). The trial court further awarded life imprisonment to the convict/accused no.1 and fine of Rs.50,000 (Rupees fifty thousand) under section 302 of the IPC and in default of payment of fine, the accused has to undergo 6 (six) months simple imprisonment.
The sentences awarded by the Court were to run concurrently.
As regards the convict/accused no.2, Toijam Thesuch @ James Bond @ Aboi, the court sentenced him life imprisonment and a fine of Rs.20,000 (Rupees twenty thousand) under section 120B of IPC and in default of payment of fine, he has to undergo 4 (four) months simple imprisonment. The trial court also ordered that the convict/accused no.2 has to undergo life imprisonment under sections 302 IPC and to pay a fine of Rs.20,000 (Rupees twenty thousand) and in default of payment of fine, the accused shall remain in jail for another 4 (four) months simple imprisonment. The sentences were to run concurrently.
The trial judge further ordered that if the fine amounts mentioned above are deposited to the Court, the same be given to the complainant/legal guardian/near and dear ones of the victim. Furthermore, the court has also recommended for providing compensation under section 357A as per the Victim Compensation Scheme for Women Victims/Survivors of Sexual Assault/other Crimes, 2018 to the Victim through her guardian.
Sentencing in capital offences in India is a midway between judicial intuition and strict application of rule of law. It is mostly guided by ‘guideline judgments’ in the death penalty context. Although neither Legislature nor Judiciary laid down a ‘definitive sentencing policy,’ the Courts in India have addressed this problem in a principled manner having regards to judicial standards and principles. These judicially laid down principles not only serve as instructive guidelines but also preserve the required discretion of the trial judges while sentencing. The judicial trend in our country has been towards striking a balance between reform and punishment. The protection of society and stamping out criminal proclivity is the object of law which can be achieved by imposing appropriate sentence on criminals. This was reflected in often quoted passages of the Supreme Court in Dhananjay Chatterjee v. State of West Bengal, (1994) 2 SCC 220, wherein the Court observed: “In our opinion, the measure of punishment in a given case must depend upon the atrocity of the crime; the conduct of the criminal and the defenceless and unprotected state of the victim. The imposition of appropriate punishment is the manner in which the courts respond to the society’s cry for justice against the criminal’s demands for justice. The courts should impose punishment befitting the crime so that the courts reflect public abhorrence of the crime. The courts must not only keep in view the rights of the criminal, but also the rights of the victim of a crime and the society at large while considering the imposition of appropriate punishment.” It is well settled that the court must respond to the cry of the society and to settle what would be a deterrent punishment for an abominable crime.
Further, a three-Judge Bench of the Apex Court evolved a hybrid special category of the sentence in the case of Swamy Shraddananda @ Murali Manohar Mishra v. State of Karnataka, (2008) 13 SCC 767 and ruled that the Court could commute the death sentence and substitute it with life imprisonment with the direction that the convict would not be released from prison for the rest of his life. But at the same time, having regard to the nature of the crime, the Court may strongly feel that a sentence of life imprisonment subject to remission normally works out to a term of 14 years would be grossly disproportionate and inadequate. What then should the Court do? If the Court's option is limited only to two punishments, one a sentence of imprisonment, for all intents and purposes, of not more than 14 years and the other death, the Court may feel tempted and find itself nudged into endorsing the death penalty. Such a course would indeed be disastrous. A far more just, reasonable and the proper course would be to expand the options and to take over what, as a matter of fact, lawfully belongs to the Court i.e. the vast hiatus between 14 years' imprisonment and death. It needs to be emphasised that the Court would take recourse to the expanded option primarily because in the facts of the case, the sentence of 14 years' imprisonment would amount to no punishment at all.
Later, in the case of Union of India v. Sriharan @ Murugan and others, (2016) 7 SCC 191, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held: “We, therefore, reiterate that the power derived from the Penal Code for any modified punishment within the punishment provided for in the Penal Code for such specified offences can only be exercised by the High Court and in the event of further appeal only by the Supreme Court and not by any other court in this country. To put it differently, the power to impose a modified punishment providing for any specific term of incarceration or till the end of the convict's life as an alternative to death penalty can be exercised only by the High Court and the Supreme Court and not by any other inferior court”. The Court further held that the imprisonment of life means imprisonment till the end of life of the convict. However, the appropriate government in exercise of the power under Sections 432 and 433 of the CrPC can grant remission in the form of commutation. Life convict can be also validly granted remission etc. by the President and the Governor of the State as provided under Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution. Thus, now it is settled that where life imprisonment is considered to be disproportionate or inadequate, then the Court may direct the sentence for life imprisonment, without any right to remission i.e. imprisonment for the entire course of life with no recourse to remission, but subject to the power that may be exercised under Articles 72 and 161 of the Constitution.
No doubt, the learned Sessions Judge, Imphal East has done a commendable job to find the convicts guilty of committing rape and murder of the hapless victim. The offence committed was heinous and deplorable. In this country, life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence is an exception. The learned trial court has rightly awarded life imprisonment to both the convicts. The judgment is in tune with the precedent made in Purushottam Dashrath Borate v. the state of Maharashtra, (2015) 6 SCC 652, wherein the Supreme Court held that age of the accused or family background of the accused or lack of criminal antecedents cannot be said to be the mitigating circumstances. It cannot also be considered as a mitigating circumstance, particularly taking into consideration, the nature of the heinous offence and cold and calculated manner in which it was committed by the accused persons. However, the 2nd part of the order of the learned court that the accused shall not be released in any manner till he completes 20 years of imprisonment is inconsistent with the settled legal position as discussed above. The order cannot bypass the powers of the appropriate Government to grant remission under Sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. Furthermore, this part of the order is also ultra vires of the Constitution as it restricts the power of the Governor of the State to grant remission etc., under Article 161 of the Constitution.
(The views expressed are the writer's own)