What is Collective Consciousness’s role in Death Penalty sentencing in Trial Courts?

What is Collective Consciousness's role in Death Penalty sentencing in Trial Courts?
What is Collective Consciousness's role in Death Penalty sentencing in Trial Courts?

What is Collective Consciousness’s role in Death Penalty sentencing in Trial Courts?


A study was conducted by the Research Organisation of the National Law University, Delhi under which the organisation analysed 215 judgements from three states –

43 from Delhi

82 from Madhya Pradesh

90 from Maharashtra

in which the death sentence was imposed by the trial courts between 2000 and 2015 and a report was prepared for the same under Project 39 A of the National Law University, Delhi.


What is the meaning of collective conscience?

The term collective consciousness can be termed as a fundamental sociological concept that speaks about ideas, attitudes and the set of shared beliefs and knowledge which are common in a social group or society.



The study found that while imposing a death sentence on convicts the major reason cited by trial courts in Delhi is the shock and impact of a crime on the collective conscience of the society.

The famous Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab was taken into consideration as the study revealed blatant non-compliance carried on by the trial court with the sentencing framework laid down by the Supreme Court of India in Bachchan Singh v. State of Punjab in 1980 where a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India was called upon to decide the constitutional validity of the capital punishment.

It was also found, out of the 43 cases in Delhi in which the capital punishment was awarded between 2000 and 2015, the impact of the crime on society is collective conscience which was the dominating force in 31 cases that comes around to nearly 72% as grounds to award the death penalty to the convicts.

In Maharashtra 46 out of 90 cases (51%) were found and in Madhya Pradesh 35 out of 82 cases (43%) which were decided based on the said ground.


Collective conscience applied over the years –

In the 1983 judgement of Machhi Singh v. State of Punjab the Supreme Court of India used the collective conscience of society as a ground.

Under the judgement, it was held by the Supreme Court that “when collective conscience of society is shocked, it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty”.

The ground was further on used by the Supreme Court in its 2005 judgement in the Parliament attack case in which the death penalty to the convict Afzal Guru was awarded.


So does this question’s the ways to decide on awarding the death penalty?

A sentencing framework was formulated by the Supreme Court of India in the case of Bachan Singh that was to be followed while imposing the death penalty.

  • Weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances were essentially required relating to both the circumstances of the offence and the offender in order to decide on whether a death sentence or a life imprisonment should be imposed on a person.
  • The aggravating circumstances must outweigh the mitigating circumstances for a case to be eligible for capital punishment as per the Bachan Singh judgement.
  • One of the major highlights discovered through Project 39 A report was the non-consideration of the mitigating factors while awarding the death penalty.

Collective conscience manifests through the individual conscience of the judge which means that when this phrase is used by the judges it is really to express what is essentially their own analysis or they have taken it upon themselves to determine collective consciousness.

Both such actions are entirely self-generated.

Another one of the most essential aspects of the sentencing framework laid by the Supreme Court of India in the Bachan Singh judgement is to consider whether the alternative punishment of life imprisonment can be “unquestionably foreclosed”. Only then the accused can be sentenced with capital punishment.

It was however found out that despite the framework, life imprisonment as an alternative was discussed only in 26.6% of cases before imposing capital punishment in the following three states-

22 out of 82 cases in Madhya Pradesh

8 out of 43 cases in Delhi and,

27 out of 90 cases in Maharashtra.

In all these cases where it was discussed as an alternative, it was dismissed on the ground of brutality of the crime.

The report also highlighted the fact that how the trial court failed to consider the individual roles of the accused involved in the crime while pronouncing the death penalty to the accused in a case involving more than one convict to the crime.

In Madhya Pradesh, in 17 out of 82 cases that involved more than one convict sentenced to the death penalty, It was only in five cases that individual roles in crime were considered.

And only in one case individual mitigating circumstances were considered within the state.


Law Commission’s Stand –

In 2015, the Law Commission headed by Justice AP Shah proposed to abolish the death penalty.

The said proposal however was made by the commission only for non-terrorism cases.


The Outcome –

The said study shows that the sentencing framework concerning the death penalty has completely collapsed.

The reasons involved are – confusion, extreme inconsistency and arbitrariness in the Supreme Court of India’s death penalty jurisprudence have resulted in a devastating impact on the sentencing process in the trial courts.




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