In an extraordinary kind of mea culpa, the Supreme Court reversed its verdict on six death row prisoners, not only freeing them but ordering compensation and pulling up the Maharashtra police. For the convicts who faced the worst psychological torture of being condemned men, it may not quite be “all’s well that ends well”. They suffered 16 years behind bars under the shadow of death, living in appalling conditions — some in solitary confinement — for which Rs 5 lakhs in damages seems inadequate. They can only rejoice at escaping the noose. All this doesn’t show India’s highest court in good light. How did the judges uphold the death sentences, actually enhancing the misery by raising the number of death sentences to six persons after the Bombay high court commuted the sentences to life for three? It’s clear the court hadn’t gone into the case’s minute details though it was a matter of life and death for the accused.
The kind of accused put up for sentencing in the heinous crime of killing a whole family in a dacoity after raping a woman and her teenaged daughter may have blinded justice in the first place. Dispossessed people like nomadic tribes have so little going for them that even a decent defence in law may have been beyond their reach. It’s possible they became tools in the hands of the police looking to solve high-profile crimes as they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a comment on our society and how it runs its policing that such a huge miscarriage of justice could take place. The treatment of one of the accused, who was a juvenile when the crime surfaced, is a testament to how sadistic man can be.
The reversal of the death sentences brings up the question of who committed the crime in the first place. Isn’t it obvious that someone did carry out the rapes and brutal killings? How do we expect crime detection to work now, after 16 years have elapsed? While we celebrate the fact that not one innocent man should be hanged for a crime he didn’t commit, the question of finding the real culprits must be answered satisfactorily, ironically by a police force that botched its job initially. The long-drawn-out adjudicating and review process is also testament to the pace at which our justice system works — ponderous, to say the least. The larger moral argument about the death sentence must also be considered some day, but long before that the courts at all levels must understand that these sentences should be given only in the rarest of rare cases, that too only if the prosecution proves its case beyond all reasonable doubt.