Archive for May 4th, 2013

1996: Ravji Rao aka Ramchandra, on questionable jurisprudence

May 4th, 2013 Headsman

India’s recent re-entry into the death penalty club makes this an apt occasion to recall a past generation when that country was a somewhat more willing hangman than it has been in recent years.

Ravji was among India’s last hangings prior to the near-moratorium in India in the first years of the 21st century.

And considering India’s recent reputation for extreme deliberation, with death sentences routinely stuck in decades-long holding patterns, Ravji’s case was not at all typical. He hanged just two days shy of the third anniversary of his murder — the horrifying slaughter of his three children, his pregnant wife, and his neighbor, all for no discernible reason.

Death sentences in India have to be handed down only for the “rarest of the rare” crimes, but when a two-judge Supreme Court panel (India has a large high court which decides most cases without sitting en banc) heard the appeal in 1995, it had no trouble ruling this filicide easily qualified as rarest-rare. I mean, you’d think, right?

Funny thing.

The judgment in Ravji simply said that “it is the nature and gravity of the crime, but not the criminal, which are germane for consideration of appropriate punishment in a criminal trial.” If the crime is among the most awful murders known and creates “society’s cry for justice against against the criminal,” then it’s among the rarest of the rare: it doesn’t matter if the intent or mental state of the person who carried it out might have been in any way mitigated from full responsibility.

In 2009, the Supreme Court walked that interpretation back, acknowledging that Ravji aka Ramchandra v. State of Rajasthan flatly contravened pre-existing death penalty jurisprudence dating back to 1980* specifying that the characteristics of the criminal counted, too. “We are not oblivious that the Ravji case has been followed in at least six decisions of this Court in which death punishment has been awarded in [the] last nine years,” the judgment noted with some embarrassment. “But, in our opinion, it was rendered per incuriam (ignored the statute of law).”

Subsequent judgments have confirmed that re-reading, and a letter of retired justices even flatly called Ravji’s hanging (along with that of Surja Ram in 1997, under the same since-abandoned jurisprudence) “possibly the gravest known miscarriage of justice in the history of crime and punishment in independent India.”

* A case called Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab was the precedent Ravji erroneously ignored. Bachan Singh delineated several factors that should all be considered in weighing prospective “rarest of the rare” situations:

  1. the manner of the commission of the murder;
  2. the motive;
  3. the antisocial or socially abhorrent nature of the crime;
  4. the magnitude of the crime;
  5. the personality of the victim of murder

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,Wrongful Executions

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