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Law University website reopens debate on the death penalty
ADITYA MANI JHA  7th Feb 2015

Om Puri in a still from The Hangman (2010).

ne of my favourite novels of 2014 was K.R. Meera's Hangwoman, a bestselling Malayalam novel translated by the indefatigable J. Devika (who has also translated Sarah Joseph in the past). In a recently published interview, Meera said, "I wanted to shatter the reader, that's why I wrote Hangwoman." And shattered is precisely what you feel after reading the story of Chetna Grddh Mullick, a 20-something who becomes the first-ever female executioner in the world. The story, of course, borrows elements from the life of Nata Mullick, the hangman who became a bit of a cause celebre after the Dhananjoy Chatterjee rape case. No criminal case in recent times has provoked so fierce a debate on the death penalty in India. Like the number of African-American men on death row in Texas, there was a school of thought that believed that Chatterjee's execution was hastened because he was a poor man, a guard at the apartment complex where the victim lived.

Last month, NLU (National Law University) Delhi started a website called, as an extension of the ongoing Death Penalty Research Project (DPRP). In an introductory passage, the editors of the site note, "A predominant observation during the Death Penalty Research Project was that the recipients of capital punishment usually belonged to economically and socially backward classes. Owing to their destitution, a large numbers of prisoners sentenced to death are unable to access adequate legal representation (...)" This, then, is one of the main agendas of the DPRP: to track cases around the country where the accused has been sentenced to death, to check if the accused has competent legal representation, and to arrange interventions and appeals as and when necessary. On the website, there is a real time account of all the cases involving the death penalty in India.

The resources that this website offers are, no doubt, invaluable to legal students or simply enthusiasts who seek to go beyond lurid headlines. But even for the casual observer, there is plenty to ponder upon; not least being the several anonymous testimonies of death row inmates or people who stand to receive the death penalty should they be found guilty.

"I was taken to the magistrate's home because the newspaper said that I had surrendered. I was taken on remand and was asked to go wherever the police took me. I did not have a lawyer. I was kept in Bawana for 14 days. They passed several rounds of electric shocks through my body and beat me continuously, after which I would vomit. The police would then give me soda, and I would feel better after drinking it. The entire ordeal would begin again." This man was later offered a bribe by the police, in exchange for a full confession; something we would like to pretend does not happen often. In another testimony, two scrap-collecting brothers were falsely accused of murdering five members of a client's family. In the police affidavit, their ages are recorded as 21 and 23, while they were really just 12 and 16, respectively.

Think about that: a 12-year-old accused of multiple homicides because the police, sometimes, will do just about anything to close a case. This was, in fact, the first legal intervention by the DPRP; they filed a petition in the Supreme Court, along with documents that showed the real age of the accused. The Supreme Court has issued an interim stay order against the execution until the Review Petition is decided.

One thing that advocates of the death penalty conveniently overlook is that there has been no statistical correlation between the death penalty and falling crime rates. America, as we have established by now, likes its executions, by and far, and is hence an ideal laboratory for those studying the effects of capital punishment on society. Since 1991, there hasn't been a single year when the murder rates in non-death penalty states haven't been lower than the rates in states that executed [Stats courtesy DPIC (Death Penalty Information Centre)]. Since a June 2004 ruling, the state of New York effectively abolished the use of the death penalty at the state level. Even in the relatively short time frame of 10 years, the murder rates in the state of New York have gone down. Coincidence, you say? Perhaps, but it's a coincidence that legislators around the world can ill afford to ignore now.

In India, the death penalty isn't a big election issue like it is in America (one recalls Boston Legal where Denny Crane says, "How is it that everybody who has ever stood for President over the last three decades has been mysteriously for the death penalty?") Perhaps, with interventions like the DPRP's, this is another thing that will change soon.

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