Is Inordinate Delay a Ground for Commutation of Death Penalty in India?

Death Penalty

There are varying opinions on the moral, ethical, and legal justifications for the death sentence, and it continues to be a divisive topic on a global scale. The Supreme Court of India has ruled that some heinous crimes, including murder, terrorism, and the rarest of rare cases, are punishable by the death penalty. However, the execution of death row inmates has been plagued by enormous delays, raising questions about their rights and the efficiency of the legal system. India still imposes the death sentence as a punishment for some crimes, such as terrorism, homicide, and treason.

The Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and other legislation are primarily where the legal framework for the death penalty in India is laid forth. A fair trial, access to counsel, and consideration of mitigating factors are only a few procedural safeguards to be met before the death penalty can be imposed and carried out. However, due to worries about the impartiality, dependability, and arbitrary administration of the death penalty, the imposition of the death penalty in India has been the topic of discussion and controversy.  

Delays in the court system significantly impact cases involving the death penalty. The legitimacy, equity, and effectiveness of the death penalty may be compromised by the lengthy interval between the imposition of the death penalty and its execution. Several things, such as a backlog of cases, complicated procedural rules, a lack of funding, and a protracted appeals procedure, can cause delays. On those sentenced to death row, a delay has a significant influence. Long-term doubt, worry, and death expectancy can cause severe psychological suffering against their right to life and dignity. Additionally, it makes legal remedies less effective and more challenging to mount an effective defense, obstructing their access to justice. Delays can also undermine the validity of the legal system and raise the possibility of erroneous convictions by leading to the degradation of evidence, the loss of witnesses, and fading memories.

Timely Justice – The Global Perspective on Delay in Death Penalty Cases

Death Penalty

International human rights standards acknowledge the adverse effects of excessive delay in instances involving the death penalty, as stated in numerous treaties and conventions. The rights to life, dignity, and a fair trial are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a signatory. In interpreting the ICCPR, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has stressed that excessive delays in the execution of the death penalty might amount to cruel, inhumane, or humiliating treatment, which is a violation of fundamental rights.

The need for adequate time restrictions for the execution of death sentences has been stressed by the jurisprudence of international courts and organizations, including the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These organizations have acknowledged that protracted proceedings can defeat the intent and efficacy of the death penalty and result in a breach of fundamental rights. In light of these international norms, India’s approach to excessive delay in death penalty cases must be assessed. Even while the Indian judiciary has acknowledged the value of prompt justice and the adverse effects of delay, the law on this topic is still developing. The impact of delays on the rights of death row inmates needs to be recognized with greater clarity and consistency, and solutions must be developed.

The Complex Consequences of Delay – Balancing Justice


The rarest of rare theory was established in India by the landmark decision in the Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab case in 1980. The Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty should only be used in extreme circumstances when society is so horrified that it demands the execution of the offender. The court acknowledged that the punishment must be appropriate for the crime committed and that applying the death penalty must consider aggravating and mitigating factors. The Bachan Singh case, though, didn’t specifically address the question of delay. This approach and its ramifications for death row inmates have been further developed in later judgments.

The Triveniben v. State of Gujarat case brought attention to the effects of delay on death row inmates and set a significant judicial precedent for commuting death sentences in cases of excessive delay. The Supreme Court ruled that excessive and unjustified delays in carrying out the death penalty can violate a person’s right to life and provide a cause to commute the sentence to life in prison. The court clarified that a protracted delay could result in extreme mental distress, worry, and misery, which would be cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. The Triveniben case acknowledged the necessity of striking a balance between the rights of the convicted party and the need for justice on a societal level.

The Indian Supreme Court has kept looking into the issue of delays in cases involving the death penalty and how they affect the rights of individuals convicted since the Triveniben case. The court has frequently modified death sentences to life in prison due to protracted delays, which it considers a violation of the fundamental right to life and liberty. In Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India, it should be noted that the Supreme Court acknowledged that mental suffering and violations of the right to a decent existence could result from delays in the execution of the death penalty. The court recognized the need for an efficient criminal justice system to resolve uncertainties efficiently. 

The law in India regarding delays in cases involving the death penalty has developed over time, reflecting an increasing understanding of the detrimental effects of excessive delays on the rights of the convicted. A more complex understanding of the issue resulted from the court’s recognition of the necessity to balance punishment and the protection of fundamental rights.

Slow Death – The Toll of Protracted Delays on Death Row

Death Row

Executing death sentences too slowly may be considered harsh, inhumane, or degrading treatment. Convicts are subjected to psychological agony, uncertainty, and mental pain during the protracted time on death row, frequently several years or even decades. They may experience considerable psychological discomfort, worry, and trauma due to the possibility of an impending execution, which violates their dignity and subjects them to cruel treatment. Delays may hamper death row inmates’ access to justice in the execution of death sentences. The effectiveness of legal remedies, such as appeals and reviews, can be harmed by protracted delays because, over time, evidence may degrade, witnesses may disappear, or legal arguments may become irrelevant.

Additionally, death row inmates’ difficulty finding competent legal counsel may be made worse by the drawn-out legal process. A denial of justice and a violation of their right to a fair trial may occur from inadequate legal representation and the inability to state their case owing to the passage of time adequately. Furthermore, marginalized and economically underprivileged people who might not have the resources to deal with complicated legal procedures can be disproportionately affected by delays in the court system. This can potentially exacerbate inequality and erode the idea of equal protection under the law.

Behind Bars – Unveiling Challenges and Reforms in Death Penalty Delays

  • A fair trial must include the right to legal representation as an essential requirement. However, death row inmates frequently struggle to obtain competent legal counsel throughout the judicial procedure. Due to budgetary limitations, defendants may repeatedly be defended by overworked, underfunded, or inexperienced attorneys. A weak defense can be more challenging to present, more mistakes can be made, and the length of the legal process can all be affected by inadequate legal assistance. The impact of excessive delays is exacerbated by the absence of efficient legal counsel, depriving death row inmates of their right to a fair trial and a powerful recourse. 
  • The Indian judiciary faces numerous difficulties, including a backlog of cases and a burdensome judicial system. Delays in resolving issues and the execution of sentences are caused by the enormous number of open cases, notably those involving the death penalty. The lengthy court hearings that can come from the overworked judiciary, scarce resources, and complicated procedural rules might exacerbate the already severe delays. The ability of the legal system to deliver prompt justice is also hampered by the backlog Of cases, which also violates the right of death row inmates to have their issues heard and decided without undue delay.
  • Public opinion and the media significantly influence perceptions and attitudes regarding situations involving the death sentence. Public opinion can be affected by media coverage of high-profile cases, leading to an environment where a fair trial may not be possible. The fairness of the legal system may be compromised by biased reporting, sensationalism, and the need for prompt justice. As cases become entrenched in controversy, leading to protracted legal fights and commutation requests, the impact of public opinion and the media may also contribute to delays in the execution of death sentences. It continues to be challenging to balance the right to a fair trial and the power of the media and public opinion.

Accelerating Justice – Reforms for Timely and Fair Death Penalty Cases

  • Choosing Between Timely and Error-Free Justice While Balancing Interests: The demand for speedy justice and ensuring error-free justice must be balanced, and this is vital. Without compromising the ideals of justice and due process, efforts should be made to speed up the adjudication of death penalty cases and streamline the legal system. Properly managing death penalty cases may entail assigning enough resources, including judges, courts, and infrastructure.
  • Strengthening the Criminal Justice System: The criminal justice system, including law enforcement agencies, investigation processes, forensic capabilities, and witness protection, needs to be strengthened. The possibility of delays in death penalty cases can be reduced by addressing systemic flaws, including investigation and evidentiary problems. Creating a more effective and efficient criminal justice system necessitates spending on infrastructure, capacity building, and training.
  • Enhancing Access to Quality Legal Representation: Increasing access to high-quality legal representation is critical for death row inmates. Legal aid programs should get adequate financing to guarantee that all defendants, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have access to knowledgeable and resourceful legal representation throughout the legal process. This would entail creating specialized legal aid units that handle execution-related cases and continuing to train the attorneys working on those cases.
  • The establishment of adequate systems for evaluating death sentence cases and providing effective remedies for excessive delay is crucial. This may entail establishing precise deadlines for the court’s various stages, guaranteeing consistent monitoring and reporting of case developments, and permitting prompt appeals and reviews. Mechanisms should also be in place to deal with excessive delays, such as clauses that allow death sentences to be commuted to life in prison when delays have violated the rights of death row inmates.


In conclusion, there are severe socio-legal issues raised by India’s use of excessive delay to commute death row inmates’ sentences. The law concerning delays in death sentence cases has developed over time, considering the adverse effects of protracted delays on prisoners’ rights, such as their right to life, dignity, and a fair trial. By recognizing that excessive and unreasonable delay might violate the right to life and result in the commuting of death sentences, the Triveniben case established an important precedent. The effect on death row inmates’ rights emphasizes the requirement for thorough reforms in India’s criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system should be strengthened, legal aid and representation should be improved, review and remedy procedures should be established, and public awareness and sensitization campaigns should be carried out, among other proposed reforms and recommendations. These steps are intended to solve the structural problems that lead to delays, guarantee fairness and due process, and protect the rights of death row inmates. To address the issue of undue delay being used as a defense for commuting the sentence for death row inmates in India, a comprehensive plan prioritizing fairness, effectiveness, and human rights is required. By enacting comprehensive changes and incorporating international best practices, India may progress towards a criminal justice system that offers speedy justice while protecting the fundamental rights of all parties involved.