Hassan and others v. State (PLD 2013 SC 793)

If an accused is imprisoned for a period equal to or longer than the period of life imprisonment while waiting to exhaust their legal remedies, then the expectancy of life can lead to reduction of sentence from death to life imprisonment.

The two accused were convicted and sentenced to death under PPC 302(b), and the sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court. At the time of their Supreme Court hearing, the accused had served over 25 years each in prison while pursuing their appeals.

The Supreme Court noted that PPC 302(b) provides that a person committing qatl-e-amd shall be punished with death orimprisonment for life. The Court considered the doctrine of expectancy of life; that the delay to the conclusion of a trial could lead the accused to coming to expect life, as it were, even with a death sentence having been initially levied. In this regard, the Court considered the judicial authorities and drew out the following three principles:

  1. Where a convict, sentenced to death on a charge or murder, experiences a delay in the final disposition of a legal remedy, and they have undergone a period of incarceration that is less than that of a term of life imprisonment, then this delay cannot be used to reduce the sentence from death to life imprisonment.
  2. Where the complainant is seeking the enhancement of a sentence to death, and during the pendency of the trial the convict ends up serving a term equivalent to life imprisonment, then the principle of expectancy of life can lead to the sentence not being enhanced to death. As such, the spirit of Article 13(a) of the Constitution can be considered as a factor, along with other factors such as life expectancy and the case facts, for not enhancing the sentence to death, at such a late stage.
  3. Where the convict sentenced to death undergoes a period of custody equal to or longer than the term of life imprisonment, during the pendency of his trial, then the expectancy of life ‘may be a relevant factor to be considered along with the other factors’ in reducing the sentence from death to life imprisonment.

The third principle was engaged and the Court ruled that a death sentence in the case would be “unconscionably delayed punishment, delayed to such an extent that the punishment is aggravated beyond the contemplation of the relevant law itself.” The Court specified however that such treatment was only appropriate where the delay was caused by pursuit of judicial remedy, and not where the delay was caused by the Executive in deciding a mercy petition, after judicial remedies were exhausted. Similarly, the principle would not be relevant in a case “wherein the convict is himself demonstrably and significantly responsible for the delay occasioned in conclusion of his judicial remedies.” The death sentences were reduced to life imprisonment.

It is critical to note that such commutation is discretionary: the court may commute a death sentence where the accused has already been imprisoned for more than a complete life sentence. Such treatment is not automatic, so a strong case must be built to convince the courts to extend such treatment.