Suspend life sentence only if trial court has clearly erred: Supreme Court

Ananya Shroff
4 Min Read

New Delhi : The Supreme Court has given an important verdict on the suspension of sentence during appeals to high courts in cases of life imprisonment from trial courts. The apex court has clarified that the sentence of life imprisonment should be suspended only when it is clearly visible at first glance that the trial court has made a mistake. According to a report by our colleague Times of India, the Supreme Court has said that constitutional courts should not suspend the sentence in cases involving life imprisonment unless they are satisfied that the trial court's decision is not going to stand during the appeal. The apex court said that fixed-term imprisonment and life imprisonment need to be looked at separately. Hearing a petition seeking suspension of life imprisonment in a murder case, a vacation bench of Justices JB Pardiwala and Ujjwal Bhuiyan said, “There is a subtle difference between fixed-term sentence and life imprisonment.” The bench said, 'If the sentence awarded is for a fixed term, the appellate courts can liberally exercise their discretion to suspend the sentence till the appeal of the convict is decided, unless the prosecution cites exceptional circumstances to prevent the court from suspending it.'

The general principle of justice is that the accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. But once a conviction is made by the trial court, the position changes. The accused is then presumed to be guilty until proven innocent by the appellate court. Citing this general principle of justice, the Supreme Court said, “When the case is one of imprisonment for life, the only test to be applied by the appellate court is whether there is something evident on the face of the record on the basis of which the appellate court can form a prima facie opinion that the conviction is not sustainable or that the convict has a good chance of succeeding in his appeal.”

However, the Supreme Court said that in such cases the appellate court should not re-evaluate the evidence. The court recorded these comments in a case from Gujarat. Justice Pardiwala and Bhuiyan said that since the High Court has prima facie found that the trial court has correctly evaluated the evidence, there is no scope for interference by the Supreme Court.

Rauf Rahim, counsel for the man who appealed against the life sentence, argued that his client had no prior criminal history and his sentence should be suspended as he had to take care of his widowed daughter-in-law who has three minor children. He also told the court that since the appeal against the sentence was filed in the High Court last year, it was highly unlikely to be decided in the near future.

Adopting a humanitarian approach, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Gujarat Government on the plea seeking suspension of the convict's sentence and posted the case for hearing after four weeks.

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