Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam, on Saturday defended the last month's Supreme Court verdict on mercy petitions, saying as per Article 21 of the Constitution, even a death row convict is entitled to protection.
He said, "This (ruling) does not mean the court is showing leniency to people who have committed heinous crimes.
Commuting death sentence to life can be done in cases of unexplained and undue delay in deciding mercy petitions." The CJI was speaking at a seminar on "Improving Criminal Investigation" organised by Legally Speaking Trust in collaboration with the CBI.
A convict has a right to plead for mercy and it is the court's constitutional obligation to decide on it, he said.
"However, (mercy) petitions have been kept pending for more than 10 years. Of the 15 convicts on death row (whose pleas were decided last month), two turned insane due to uncertainty (over their petitions). The petitions were not forwarded to the President," Sathasivam said.
The apex court has also framed guidelines on disposal of mercy petitions and execution of death sentence. As per the norms, convicts given death penalty must be informed about the rejection of their mercy pleas and should be given a chance to meet their family members before they are executed, he said.
In a landmark verdict, a SC bench, headed by the CJI, on January 21, said death sentence of a condemned prisoner can be commuted to life imprisonment on the ground of delay on the part of the Government in deciding the mercy plea.
During arguments on mercy petitions filed by over a dozen condemned prisoners, the Centre told the SC there can't be a time frame for examining such pleas. While delivering the verdict, the bench gave life term to 15 death row inmates.
At the seminar, the CJI said that after the Delhi gang-rape case of December 2012, the SC had told courts that conviction in cases of sexual assault can be based on solitary testimony of the victim.
He maintained that increase in pendency of criminal cases was not because of the judiciary but due to apathy and inaction of investigative agencies. Action needed to be taken against erring officers.
Probe agencies felt handicapped by want of modern gadgets and also effectiveness of traditional methods of investigation is diminishing, the CJI noted.