Priyadarshini Mattoo and Jessica Lall: Death Penalty Scrutinized

March 17th, 201210:08 am @    

On the 6th of October 2010, the Supreme Court of India gave a very debatable decision in a case S.K. Singh vs. State through CBI[1], more famously known as the Priyadarshini Mattoo case. Priyadarshini Mattoo was a third year law student at the Delhi University. She was repeatedly harassed and followed around by Santosh Kumar Singh, her senior in college. Even after passing out, he made regular trips to the university just to stalk the deceased. Priyadarshini even filed numerous complaints in various police stations and a PSO, Head Constable Rajinder Singh, was deputed to her for her safety. Santosh Kumar was summoned to the police station a number of times and warned but nothing more was done, as his father was soon to be the Additional Commissioner of Police, Delhi.

At first, it was just stalking and harassment. Then came the 23rd January 1996, when the accused, Santosh Kumar, entered the house of the deceased at a time when she was alone at home. The parents were not at home, servant was out meeting his friends and the PSO had been ordered to report back after some time. Taking advantage of the situation, the accused brutally raped and murdered the 25-year-oldPriyadarshiniMattoo. He raped her, beat her face with a helmet, strangulated her with the cord of an electric heat converter, hid her body under the bed and left. HC Rajinder Kumar came back at around 5.30 p.m., as instructed only to find the dead body of the deceased lying under the bed.

The police, acting on past records and a suspicion of the victim’s mother, Rageshwari Mattoo, S.K. Singh was beckoned to the police station. Charges punishable under sections 302 and 376 under the IPC were framed against him on the basis of statements given by the victim’sneighbors and certain other facts like the discovery of a visor-less helmet in the Singh’s possession and a fractured 5th metacarpal bone on his right hand. He pleaded not guilty and claimed trial.

Delivering the judgment in the trial court proceedings in 1999, the Additional Sessions Judge, J.P. Thareja acquitted S.K. Singh due to lack of proper evidence and benefit of doubt while openly criticizing the Delhi Police and the CBI. He commented that the accused’s father might have used his position to influence the findings of the Delhi Police. The judgment also held the CBI responsible for unfair investigation and failure to produce Virender Prasad, Mattoo’s household help, which resulted in the obstruction of justice. The judge added that the CBI fabricated the DNA test in the rape case as it was not obtained in accordance with the judicial procedure and could not therefore be admitted in evidence in view of Section 45 of the Indian Evidence Act. J.P. Thareja said of S.K. Singh, that even though he knew that the accused was the criminal, he was forced to acquit him, giving him the benefit of doubt.

The people opposed the decision of the district court. Following the vast public turmoil, the CBI on 29th February 2000, appealed the District Court’s decision in the Delhi High Court. The trail was not considered a priority for a long time and there was no progress until in 2006, in the wake of recent Jessica Lall murder case public scrutiny brought the justices in immense pressure. Thus after six years of appeal, in 2006, justices R.S. Sodhi and P.K. Bhasin took up the case on a day-to-day hearing basis. The judgment was given in 42 days and the defendant found guilty under sections 302 and 367 of the Indian Penal Code. It criticized the judgment given by the district court and the Delhi Police for being biased towards the accused because of his father’s position. S.K. Singh was thus given a death penalty for the rape and murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo.

S.K. Singh then appealed to the apex court of the country on 19th February 2007. The Supreme Court took up his case and gave a stay order on the death sentence given by the Delhi High Court. Finally on 6th October 2010, 14 years after the actual crime was committed, the Supreme Court held the accused responsible for the gruesome crime but reduced the punishment from death penalty to life imprisonment. The Bench comprising Justices H.S. Bedi and C.K. Prasad later commented that that it was not a rarest of the rare cases to award a death penalty. Also the High Court gave its decision based on circumstantial evidence.

On the question of sentence, Justice Bedi said that at the time of the murder, the accused was a young 24 year old. Now after 14 years, he had been married and was the father of a girl. He believed that during the years of trial, the accused must have learnt the grievousness of his crime and the predicament he was currently facing. Giving him a death sentence now would mean not only punishing him but also his innocent wife and young child. The bench was of the view that the situation had been exasperateddue to the influential position held by S.K. Singh’s father and the ends of justice would be met if the sentence awarded to him is commuted from death to life imprisonment.

Justice Bedi said that the bench decided to reduce the accuser’s punishment because since the time of the crime, he was now more mature and also the father of a little girl. The Bench believed that reprimanding S.K. Singh would mean punishing the whole family. Though this principle does have sagacity but in case of a crime as heinous as this, the offender deserves nothing less than the highest level of punishment allowed by law.

Death penalty though considered legal in India is rarely awarded. This case serves like a classic example of how lenient the country can get while giving punishments for a crime as ghastly as the inhumane rape and murder of a person. In 1983, the Supreme Court of India decided that a death penalty should be imposed only in the “rarest of the rare” cases. Has our society come to such a point when even a cold-blooded crime of rape and murder is no longer “rare”?

The same point can be highlighted by the cases of Manu Sharma vs. NCT of Delhi, S.P.S. Rathore vs. State of Haryana & Others, VikasYadav vs. State Of Uttar Pradesh, etc. In all these cases, the accused in these cases were either themselvesat an influential post or were children of people in dominant positions. All these cases involved dreadful crimes like rape and murder but the accused were all either given life imprisonment or even less.

The Supreme Court sentenced Manu Sharma to life imprisonment in April 2010 for the ruthless murder of model Jessica Lall. He was given a 30 day parole to attend to his ailing mother but later seen partying at a night club in delhi while his supposedly ailing mother was seen promoting women’s cricket at a hotel in Chandigarh.

Vikas and Vishal Yadav were both convicted for ruthless the murder of a 24 year old businessman, Nitish Kataria. The brothers were awarded life imprisonment by the Delhi fast track court.

On the 21st of November 2009, special judge J.S. Sidhu pronounced a six-month jail term and a fine of 1000 Rupees on S.P.S. Rathore for the molestation of 14-year-oldRuchikaGirhotra in 1991. He is believed to have used his powers first as an Inspector General of Police and then as the DGP of Haryana to come off clean.

The famous politician and actor Jesse Ventura states in his book ‘I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed’[2]that we’re not ready to do away with the death penalty till the time life in a prison is considered a life. He was of the view that we should stop thinking in terms of “punishment” for a minute and think in terms of safeguarding innocent people from incorrigible murderers.

I believe that we have been a bit too merciful when it comes to the death penalty. The main accused in the assassination of late PM, Rajiv Gandhi and death of 14 others were given a life sentence that has not been implemented yet. Mohammad Afzal was convicted of conspiracy in connection with the 2001 Indian Parliament attack and was sentenced to death. His death sentence too was later stayed and is still an issue of debate. More than 25 mercy petitions are pending in the president’s office, some as old as 1992. At least a hundred people were sentenced to death in the year 2007 alone but there has been only one hanging since 1995.[3]

This trend has been along in the country since a long time. India claims to be against capital punishments like a death sentence. What is then the solution to curb these heinous crimes?

I believe that if we keep giving concessions to the criminals, it will do nothing but make crime rates of the country shoot up like a rocket. It will mean that the citizens will stop respecting the law and will lose faith in the judicial system. More and more cases of murder, assault, abduction, etc., will come up and the society will not remain “civil” anymore.Before thinking about the family of the accused, the court should first take into account the seriousness of the crime. A person who has no respect for anyone’s life should not be allowed to have one of his own.

The basic problem once again comes up in the definition of the “rarest of the rare” cases. The law in India states the capital punishment can be awarded in cases of  murder, gang robbery with murder, abetting the suicide of a child or insane person, waging war against the nation, and abetting mutiny by a member of the armed forces. The 1st Law Commission of India drafted the Indian Penal Code. The drafters of the Code comment on the issue of death as a punishment as follows-

“We are convinced that it ought to be very sparingly inflicted, and we propose to employ it only in cases where either murder or the highest offence against the state has been committed.”[4]

The landmark cases of Bachan Singh vs. state of Punjab and Machhi Singh vs. state of Punjab, the court laid down some questions that must be asked before giving a death penalty-

  1. Is there something uncommon about the crime that renders sentence of imprisonment for life inadequate and calls for a death sentence?
  2.  Are there circumstances of the crime such that there is no alternative but to impose death sentence even after according maximum weightage to the mitigating circumstances which speak in favor of the offenders?

In Mahesh vs. State of M.P., the accused were convicted for 5 murders. The cause of which was marriage of a lady belonging to higher caste with a harijan boy. The court held that in this case to give the lesser punishment for the appellants would be to render the “just” icing system of this country suspect. The common man would lose faith in thecourt. In such cases he understands and appreciates the language of deference more than the informative jargon.”

Then comes the very important case of Mohd. Chaman vs. State (N.C.T.) of Delhi. In this case, a one and half year old girl was raped by the accused, and because of the heinous act, she sustained serious injuries and died. The H.C. confirmed the death sentence awarded by the sessions Court. But the Honorable SC commuted the death sentence into life imprisonment, observing: –
The crime committed is undoubtedly serious and heinous and the conduct of the appellant is reprehensible. It reveals a dirty and prevented mind of a human being who has no control own his carnal desires. We are not persuaded to accept that the case can be called one of the ‘rarest of rare cases’ deserving death penalty. We find it difficult to hold that the appellant is such a dangerous person that to spare his life will endanger the community. It is our considered view that the case is one in which a humanist approach should be taken in the matter of awarding punishment

Coming back to the PriyadarshiniMatoo case, the sentence of the accused was dwindled from a death penalty to a life term. This was done in order to help the family of the accused, S.K. Singh, as after the death of his father, he was the sole provider of the household. The point of confutation however is that is a person who has no control over his own carnal urges fit to live is the society? He might even try to harm his own family.

There are certain implications of committing a crime and a person has to think about them before taking any wrong step. If the implications keep getting waved off, there will come a time when the very purpose of law will cease to exist. The very purpose of law will be polluted. It will become a mere joke for the society and a Judge will be nothing more than an echoing parrot. A convict is punished so that he becomes an example for the rest of humanity and deters them from committing the same crime. Thus, if a crime as heinous as taking another person’s life, the punishment has to be severe. A life sentence does not serve this purpose. There have been various instances where a convict serving a life sentence was granted parole but soon returned to his old ways, harming the society.

I will once again emphasize of the fact that I consider the judgment to very considerate in thinking about the family of the accused and also touching upon the influence of media on the decision. I thus believe that we need to review our judicial system and thus try and make law less confusing. The former American president George W. Bush mentioned in one of his presidential debates that the only reason to support a death penalty is because it saves other people’s lives.[5]

In the end, I would like to quote Sir James Fitziames Stephen, the great Jurist-
“No other punishment deters man so effectually from committing crimes as the punishment of death. This is one of those propositions which are difficult to prove simply because they are in themselves more obvious than any proof can make them. In any secondary punishment, however terrible, there is hope, but death is death, its terrors cannot be described more forcibly.”[6]


[2] Jesse Ventura, I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed (Random House Publishing Group, 2000)

[3] (last modified on 24  October 2010)

[4] Death Sentence: Extent of Judicial Discretion and Need of Guidelines (visited on 23 October 26, 2010)

[5] Presidential Debate (17 October, 2000)

[6] (visited on 23rd October)

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Rupinjit is a 2nd year student at UILS, Chandigarh pursuing BA.LLB. He loves to read and write while listening to music.

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