In 2023, the High Courts confirmed the death sentences of 1% of prisoners whose cases were up for decision. This is the lowest confirmation rate by the appellate courts since 2000. The lone confirmation came in the Karnataka High Court in a murder simpliciter case. If the dominant intention of the act was to kill a person, it is ‘murder simpliciter’; otherwise, it is categorised as an accidental murder. These were some of the findings of the ‘Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics 2023’ report, which was released by Project 39A, an advocacy group with the National Law University, Delhi.
The death sentences of 45% of prisoners were commuted. An equal share of prisoners were acquitted. The remaining 6% were remanded to trial courts (Chart 1).
Chart 1 | The chart shows the share of prisoners whose death sentences were confirmed, commuted and remitted by the High Court. It also shows the share of prisoners on death row who were acquitted.
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Notably, the rate of disposal of death penalty confirmation proceedings at the High Courts decreased by around 15% in 2023. Last year, 57 death penalty cases were disposed of compared to 68 cases in 2022. This decline is attributed to the high number of prisoners who are on death row in the country. The report noted that with 120 death sentences being imposed by trial courts, there were 561 prisoners on death row by the end of December 2023. This is the highest number in nearly two decades, and the second-highest since 2000, according to the National Crime Record Bureau’s Prison Statistics Reports.
Chart 2 | The chart shows the number of prisoners on death row as on December 31 each year.
The number of prisoners on death row by the end of December 2023 had increased by over 40% compared to 2016.
Chart 3 | The chart shows the number of death penalty cases confirmed each year by the Supreme Court. Last year, the Supreme Court did not confirm any death sentence, the second time since 2021.
As has been the trend in the recent past, the majority of death penalty cases in trial courts in 2023 involved crimes related to sexual offences. Of the 120 death sentences imposed by trial courts in 2023, more than 50% were for crimes involving homicidal rapes. Notably, the trial courts imposed death sentences in 87% of cases in the absence of any information relating to the accused. This is despite the Supreme Court’s mandate in Manoj v. State of Madhya Pradesh (2022), which requires trial courts to proactively elicit material on the mitigating circumstances of the accused, including psychiatric evaluations, while sentencing them in death penalty cases.
In 2023, the Supreme Court acquitted six death row prisoners in five cases and remanded two cases involving two prisoners to the trial courts while criticising the negligence in investigation and trials. In one particularly grievous case, it found, 28 years after his imprisonment, that the convict was a minor at the time of the offence.
Highlighting potential changes in criminal laws, the report also noted their impact on the administration of the death penalty. In August 2023, Parliament passed three new Bills to repeal existing criminal codes. These Bills received the President’s assent on December 25, 2023. The passing of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023, will increase the number of offences punishable by death to 18 from 12 under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Chart 4 | The chart shows the top ten countries with the highest number of executions of prisoners on death row in 2022.
Citing the example of Ghana, where the Parliament passed a Bill in July 2023 to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes, and countries such as Malaysia and Kenya, the report also discussed international developments in death penalty laws. According to the latest data from Amnesty International, China executed the most number of death row inmates in 2022. (Chart4).
Source: Death Penalty in India: Annual Statistics 2023
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