In a first of its kind verdict, the Supreme Court has declared as "illegal" rejection of mercy petition of death row convict M N Das by the then President Pratibha Patil and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on ground of 12 year delay in deciding his plea.
The apex court said that Patil was "kept in the dark" by the home ministry about the view of her predecessor A P J Abdul Kalam who had ordered commuting Das's death sentence to life imprisonment.
"The rejection of the appellant's mercy petition is declared illegal and quashed and the sentence of death awarded to him by the trial Court, which has been confirmed by the high court and this court is commuted into life imprisonment," a bench headed by Justice G S Singhvi said.
Das, when he was out on bail in a murder case, had beheaded one Harakanta Das in Assam and surrendered with the victim's head on April 24, 1996, and in 1997, the sessions court there had sentenced him to death.
His conviction and sentence was subsequently upheld by the Gauhati high court in 1998 and the Supreme Court in 1999.
He had moved in 1999 a mercy plea, which remained pending for 12 years before the President and was rejected in 2011.
The bench noted that President Kalam had on September 30, 2005, ordered for commutation of death sentence but the home ministry after five years again recommended rejection of Das mercy plea to then President Patil.
The bench noted that the home ministry, however, did not brief Patil about the view of her predecessor and she rejected the mercy plea on government's recommendation.
The bench said it was "most intriguing" that the home minister did not make a mention to Patil of a note dated September 30, 2005 in which Kalam had ordered for commutation.
"Why this was done has not been explained by the respondents. Though, the file containing the petition filed by the appellant and various notings recorded therein must have been placed before the President, omission to make a mention of the order passed by her predecessor from the summary prepared for her consideration leads to an inference that the president was kept in the dark about the view expressed by her predecessor and was deprived of an opportunity to objectively consider the entire matter," the bench said.