Prisoner is not ‘under sentence of death’ till the Mercy Petition lies pending, thus cannot be placed under solitary confinement after being sentenced to death by the Sessions Court

Supreme Court: In the present case under Article 32 of the Constitution for commuting  death sentence to imprisonment for life was upheld by the Court as it observed that in the present case the law laid down by the Court was not adhered to by keeping the peititoner under solitary confinement right after he was sentenced to death by the Special Judge, CBI, thereby violating the petitioner’s Fundamental Right under Article 21 of the Constitution, as the law laid down in Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, (1978) 4 SCC 494 clearly states that a prisoner cannot be kept in solitary confinement till the time his Mercy Petition has been disposed of.

The petitioner had been awarded death sentence by the Special Judge, CBI and later upheld by the Jharkhand High Court and the Supreme Court. The counsel for petitioner Urmila Sirur  argued that the Mercy Petition of the appellant addressed to the President of India and Governor of Jharkhand took a long time for disposal and the petitioner in the meantime was placed under solitary confinement immediately after the verdict of the first Court, therefore owing to the inordinate delay of the disposal of Mercy Petition the petitioners capital punishment should be commuted to life term. The respondents were represented by Sushma Suri

Holding the present petition to be maintainable the 3 Judge Bench of U.U. Lalit,  Dipak Misra and  R.F Nariman, J. observed that the delay of nearly 3 years was wholly on account of authorities concerned and the Court cannot set a time limit for the disposal of Mercy Petition by the President and Governor but the delay of 3 years for the disposal in the present case can safely be termed as inordinate. Furthermore observing that the petitioner was kept in solitary confinement the Court on studying Section 30(2) of the Prisons Act, 1894 and the dictum in Sunil Batra case observed that a prisoner is under sentence of death only when the Mercy Petition rejecting the conversion of death sentence is rejected. Therefore the Court concluded that the delay and solitary confinement together has resulted in deprivation of petitioners fundamental right under Article 21, therefore the case was considered fit for commuting of death sentence to that of life imprisonment. Ajay Kumar Pal v. Union of India2014 SCC OnLine SC 1014, decided on 12.12.2014

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