Dhananjoy Chatterjee case: A noteworthy lesson for the judiciary

16 years ago on this day, a young man aged 39 (on his birthday) was hanged till death for the offence of rape and murder of a 14 year old girl, Hetal Parekh. This young man was Dhananjoy Chatterjee (the accused). On the 16th anniversary of his execution in the Alipore jail of Kolkata, this piece throws light on the series of post-trial events till the execution in 2004 and the glaring violation of his Fundamental Right under Article 21. The purpose of this piece is to resurface the necessary lesson to be kept in mind by the judiciary.

The trial

There has been a great deal of analysis about the trial by the lower court and their subsequent appeals. Various questions had been raised against the manner in which the evidence and facts were appreciated and the failure of the prosecution to prove the charges beyond reasonable doubt. The judgment had been termed as ‘biased’ and effectuated by societal pressure and media trial. The very next day of the incident, the media had pronounced its verdict declaring the accused as a rapist and murderer who, being an antisocial element, should be hanged till death. The society was boiling with rage and demanded death penalty with taking out marches and holding rallies. However, the merit of the trial is a debate of another day.

Post-trial

The accused was convicted by the trial court and sentenced to death in 1991. The High Court of Calcutta and the Supreme Court affirmed the sentence in 1992 and 1994 respectively. Next, he filed a review petition in the Supreme Court which was rejected. Then he filed a mercy petition before the Governor who refused to intervene. He filed a writ petition against the Governor’s decision in the High Court. The High Court ordered a stay on his execution till the petition regarding the Governor’s decision was disposed of.

The High Court forgot about this writ petition and the stay on his execution subsisted. It was only in October 2003 that the High Court noticed the writ petition and rejected it with removing the stay on execution. Between this period of March 1994 and October 2003, the accused faced the fear of death every day. The conditions in which convicts on death row are kept are deplorable. They are kept in solitary confinement for most part of the day, totally cut from the prison inmates, work, educational and recreational facilities. The accused had been in the prison for around 14 long years, the greater part of it in solitary confinement.

The Supreme Court has expressly held that death row convicts cannot be segregated and are equally entitled to ordinary amenities accessible to ordinary prison inmates like food, recreational facilities, clothing, bedding etc. Segregating a death row convict would be a complete transgression of his/her right to life under Article 21 causing unreasonable harm to the convict. Despite the guidelines by the apex court, the accused was kept in solitary confinement for most part of his term.

In the meantime, the High Court failed to dispose the petition in an expeditious manner leading the accused to live a life of misery and distress.In J. Chinnappa Reddy’s words, “prolonged delay in execution of a sentence of death has a dehumanising effect and this has the constitutional implication of depriving a person of his life in an unjust, unfair and unreasonable way so as to offend the fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution.” The prolonged delay causes suffering on the mental, emotional and physical integrity due to the alternating hope of decision in favour or contrary.

Such treatment of the accused also hampers the Constitutional guarantee of social justice and international covenants and declarations of which India is a signatory. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 prohibit ‘cruel and degrading treatment/and punishment’ of an individual. It is this expression which drives the philosophy of rights of prisoners. These declarations form a part of Indian domestic law if they are not in contravention of the specific laws, as has been held in Vishaka v State of Rajasthan. The scope of Article 21 has been expanded in the course of various judgments to read in various rights for prisoners and convicts.

Considering the aforementioned grounds of unreasonable agony to the death row convicts due to inordinate delay on the part of State machinery, the Supreme Court has earlier commuted the death sentence of 15 death row convicts to life imprisonment. However, such consideration was not done in the case of the accused. The accused had been subject to gross violation of his fundamental right under Article 21 due to the undue delay on the part of the High Court to dispose of the petition against the Governor’s decision. It took the High Court 9 long years to dispose of the petition and lift the stay on execution.

A PIL was filed by a public spirited person, Ashok Kumar Pandey, before the Supreme Court, seeking commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment citing the delay in the execution of the death sentence. The apex court rejected the petition on the grounds of standing without dealing with the reasons of the delay. On the contrary, the court expected the petitioner to have looked into the reasons for such delay knowing the fact that such sensitive information is not easily available in public domain. A similar petition was filed by the accused in the apex court in March 2004 which was again set aside. The accused had served a term of around 14 years before he was executed on 14th August 2004. The rarest of the rare doctrine in cases of death penalty requires the judge to balance all the aggravating circumstances and mitigating factors. However, the court did not consider the young age of the accused while awarding the sentence, which stands to be a very important factor.

As per s. 302 of the Indian Penal Code 1860, life imprisonment is the general punishment with death penalty being an exception. As a matter of general practice, the State releases a life convict after he/she has served a sentence of 14 years under s. 432 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973. On his execution in August 2004, the accused had already served a sentence of 14 long years of rigorous imprisonment. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that the accused had to serve a double sentence for the crime he committed. It was arbitrary and highly unreasonable sideline this fact and execute him.

Multiple fold mistakes

The initial mistake was the unbalanced consideration of the mitigating factors and conviction based on circumstantial evidence. The second mistake was on the part of the High Court which took 9 years to dispose of the petition against the Governor’s decision. The final mistake was on the part of the Supreme Court, the ultimate savior of an individual’s Fundamental Rights. It had the opportunity to rectify the errors of the lower courts but the court let the accused become a victim of violation of his rights. The non-consideration of commutation of death penalty by the court was against the Constitutional principles and the precedents.

Conclusion

This case will keep reminding of the gross injustice which was meted out to the accused on the part of each segment of the Indian judiciary. It will always caution the judiciary to be very vigilant in evaluating the rights of an individual be it a death row convict and not be driven by societal pressures or media trials. The judiciary, though constituted by human figures, needs to keep itself free from the biases otherwise in an attempt to satisfy the collective consciousness, an aggrieved might have to pay the prize.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shantanu Mishra

WhatsApp Image 2020-07-19 at 13.32.18

Shantanu is a second-year BA LLB (Hons) student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He is interested in Constitutional Law and finds its intersection with Human Rights really fascinating. He can be reached at shantanumishra@nls.ac.in or at his Instagram account.

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