30 January 2023 :
Trial courts in India sentenced 165 people to death in 2022, the highest in a year in the last two decades. This is up from 146 prisoners who were sent to death row in 2021.
In almost a third of the capital punishment cases, the offender had committed a sexual crime. At the end of 2022, 539 were on death row, the highest since 2016. The population has steadily increased over the years – up 40% in 2022 from 2015. This is attributed to the large number of death penalties handed down by trial courts and the accompanying low rate of disposal of such cases by appellate courts. These conclusions are part of the ‘Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics 2022’ published by Project 39A at NLU, Delhi.
The death sentence given to 38 people in February 2022 by an Ahmedabad court in the 2008 serial blasts case contributed to the sharp rise in the number in 2022.
In 2016, death penalty for sexual offences was given in 27, or 17.6%, of the 153 cases. This number shot up to 52, or 31.5%, out of 165 cases in 2022.
Anup Surendranath, law professor and executive director of Project 39A, says the increased numbers also reflect the growing trend in trial courts. “Trial courts have resumed imposing a high number of death sentences since the dip in 2020 due to the pandemic (which was the lowest at 77),” he said.
This, Surendranath said, is in stark contrast to the Supreme Court's efforts to highlight the serious problems with the manner in which death penalty sentencing is being carried out.
In May last year, the SC held that it was the duty of the trial courts to proactively elicit materials on mitigating circumstances while sentencing in death penalty cases and issued guidelines for the collection of such information.
Surendranath said, “The Supreme Court acknowledged the necessity for reform and identified a set of crucial questions for determination by a five-judge constitution bench. The ever-widening gap between SC guidance and the trial courts' blatant disregard for procedural guarantees has been repeatedly established in research by Project 39A.”
Another issue of concern is the increasing number of prisoners on death row.
The number has increased from 400 in December 2016 to 539 as of December 2022. The highest number of death row prisoners are in UP (100), followed by Gujarat (61) and Jharkhand (46).
“Appellate courts continue to commute or acquit a majority of the death penalty cases considered by them. But they are disposed of too slowly to match the volume of death sentences coming from trial courts. This results in the death row population increasing each year. All of this highlights the crisis in India's death penalty regime and forces us to ask the question whether it is a punishment that can ever be administered in a constitutionally acceptable manner,” Surendranath said.