Post-conviction mental health & it’s effect on sentencing: SC issues directions

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of NV Ramana, MM Shantanagoudar and Indira Banerjee, JJ held

“it needs to be understood that prisoners tend to have increased affinity to mental illness. Moreover, due to legal constraints on the recognition of broad­spectrum mental illness within the Criminal Justice System, prisons inevitably become home for a greater number of mentally­ill prisoners of various degrees. There is no overlooking of the fact that the realities within the prison walls may well compound and complicate these problems.”

It said that the aspiration of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 was to provide mental health care facility for those who are in need including prisoners. The State Governments are obliged under Section 103 of the Act to setup a mental health establishment in the medical wing of at least one prison in each State and Union Territory, and prisoners with mental illness may ordinarily be referred to andcared for in the said mental health establishment.

The Court was hearing a case of a death row convict suffering from post-conviction mental illness. He is on death row since almost 17 years for rape and murder of 2 young girls. The Court was, hence, called upon to decide

• How culpability be assessed for sentencing those with mental illness?
• Is treatment better suited than punishment?\

The Court noticed that there are no set disorders/disabilities for evaluating the ‘severe mental illness’, however a ‘test of severity’ can be a guiding factor for recognizing those mental illness which qualify for an exemption. Therefore,

“the test envisaged herein predicates that the offender needs to have a severe mental illness or disability, which simply means that a medical professional would objectively consider the illness to be most serious so that he cannot understand or comprehend the nature and purpose behind the imposition of such punishment. These disorders generally include schizophrenia, other serious psychotic disorders, and dissociative disorders­with schizophrenia.”

Test of severity of post-conviction mental disability

  • The post­conviction severe mental illness will be a mitigating factor that the appellate Court, in appropriate cases, needs to consider while sentencing an accused to death penalty.
  • The assessment of such disability should be conducted by a multi­disciplinary team of qualified professionals (experienced medical practitioners, criminologists etc), including professional with expertise in accused’s particular mental illness.
  • The burden is on the accused to prove by a preponderance of clear evidence that he is suffering with severe mental illness. The accused has to demonstrate active, residual or prodromal symptoms, that the severe mental disability was manifesting.
  • The State may offer evidence to rebut such claim.
  • Court in appropriate cases could setup a panel to submit an expert report.
  • ‘Test of severity’ envisaged herein predicates that the offender needs to have a severe mental illness or disability, which simply means that objectively the illness needs to be most serious that the accused cannot understand or comprehend the nature and purpose behind the imposition of such punishment.

Mitigation of sentence in case at hand

The Court noticed that the present accused has been reeling under bouts of some form of mental irritability since 1994, as apparent from the records placed before us. Moreover, he has suffered long incarceration as well as a death row convict. It is this state of ‘accused x’ that obliges the State to act as parens patriae. In this state ‘accused x’ cannot be ignored and left to rot away, rather, he requires care and treatment. The Court, hence, held,

“the petition is allowed to the extent that the sentence of death awarded to the Petitioner is commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life sans any right to remission.”

[‘X’ v. State of Maharashtra, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 543, decided on 12.04.2018]

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