Life Terms Mean Imprisonment Till Death : Supreme Court
A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on July 19, 2016 has pronounced a landmark verdict rejecting multiple life terms for a convict guilty of heinous crimes, on a reference from a three-Judge Bench of the Apex Court. The Supreme Court very clearly and categorically held that if a convict is awarded multiple life imprisonment then the punishment shall run concurrently and not consecutively. This landmark verdict has set to rest all doubts about how the punishment shall run if a convict is awarded multiple life imprisonment. A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice TS Thakur delivered its landmark verdict on a range of legal questions including whether a convict can be asked to undergo more than one life term in a case or cases. The Bench also comprising Justices FMI Kalifulla, AK Sikri, Sharad A Bobde and R Banumati held that the trial courts and the high courts can award a term sentence along with life imprisonment simultaneously in a case where the convict may be asked to first undergo term sentence and then life sentence. This will set a precedent which in future will most likely be followed by all courts especially by all the lower courts unless it is reversed by Supreme Court itself by a Bench of five or more Judges the chances of which are very remote!
Chief Justice TS Thakur observed in the landmark verdict for the Bench comprising Justices FMI Kalifulla, AK Sikri, SA Bobde and R Banumathi that, “Logic behind life sentences not running consecutively lies in the fact that imprisonment for life implies imprisonment till the end of the normal life of the convict.” This landmark judgment came on a batch of petitions including the one filed by A Muthuramalingam on award of sentence in a case and whether they would run concurrently or consecutively. The case deals with the appeals filed by convicts accused of a single instance of multiple murders in Tamil Nadu.
The trial court had awarded them life sentences for each murder they committed and pronounced them to be served consecutively – that is one after the other. Interestingly enough, the Chennai High Court also agreed with the trial court’s logic. Interpreting Section 31 (sentence in cases of conviction of several offences at one trial) of the Criminal Procedure Code, the Constitution Bench clarified that two or more life sentences have to run concurrently and not consecutively, the latter being an “obvious impossibility”. It further held that the subsequent imprisonment for life awarded to a prisoner can be “superimposed” over the earlier life sentence. That is, if a prisoner twice condemned to life gets remission or his first life sentence is commuted, the second life sentence immediately kicks in and depriving him of the ability to enjoy the benefit of the remission or commutation of the first life sentence. In short or in a nutshell, he is likely to be perpetually in jail.
India is among the 90 countries that have life imprisonment awarded concurrently for multiple convictions. Thirty two countries award consecutive prison terms which includes Russia and Brazil. Forty-one countries award both kinds of punishments depending on the nature of the crime among other considerations. Some countries award punishment with caps ranging from 15 to 75 years.
The Constitution Bench of Supreme Court while upholding that like any human being, a convict too has only one life and cannot serve consecutive sentences of life imprisonment held on July 19 that in an explanation on why there is no point in awarding life sentences twice and thrice over to those found guilty of heinous crimes. The Court held that the multiple life sentences will be served concurrently and not consecutively. This has set a precedent that must be followed by all courts as this landmark judgment has come from a 5 Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court.
The judgment authored by Chief Justice of India TS Thakur interpreted the law saying that, “Any direction that requires the offender to undergo imprisonment for life twice over would be anomalous and irrational for it will disregard the fact that humans, like all other living beings have but one life to live.” Rightly said! All courts must follow it in India.
The vexing question before the Constitution Bench was “whether consecutive life sentences can be awarded to a convict on being found guilty of a series of murders for which he has been tried in a single trial?” To this, Chief Justice TS Thakur asked what was the meaning of awarding “consecutive” life sentences to a person when a ‘life imprisonment’ extends to the very death of the offender, who has but one life. Very rightly said. All Judges while pronouncing judgment on whether life sentences should run consecutively or concurrently should always bear it in mind what the Constitution Bench of 5 Judges of Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice of India – TS Thakur very rightly held in this landmark case.
The Bench also clarified that any remission or commutation in one such sentence would not apply to the other. The Bench also made it clear that jail terms could run consecutively in cases involving both life sentence and lesser sentences. The convicts would first serve the shorter terms, followed by the life sentence. The Supreme Court arrived at the conclusion on the basis of a comparative analysis of its earlier judgments. It also agreed with the rulings that life sentences cannot be served consecutively for the simple reason that life term meant remaining in jail for the remainder of the convict’s life and that no person had two lives. Unless the judiciary specified that sentences would run consecutively, it should be taken as jail terms to be served concurrently.
by Sanjeev Sirohi