Manoj Mitta , Aug 21, 2012

NEW DELHI: Capital punishment for a juvenile offender – that’s inconceivable in law. Yet, after being on death row for six years, a dalit convicted in a multiple-murder-and-rape case has been found by a Maharashtra court to have been a juvenile at the time of the crime. 

The implication of this order passed last month is unprecedented: although his death sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2009,Ankush Maruti Shinde is entitled to be released at the earliest as the maximum penalty under the juvenile justice law for any crime is three years. 

Besides, the order passed on July 6 by an additional sessions judge of Nashik, R N Joshi, has rendered redundant Shinde’s mercy petition pending before the President. 

The dramatic change in his fortunes is thanks to an application filed last year on his behalf by human rights advocate Vijay Hiremath seeking an inquiry into his age so that he could get the benefit of the juvenile justice law. 

If this age factor had not been taken into account before Shinde was tried and convicted along with five others, it conforms to the general pattern that people of lower castes and classes, for lack of proper legal representation, are more susceptible to arbitrariness in the award of death penalty. 

For, Shinde got the death sentence evidently because his counsels in the trial court, high court and Supreme Court had failed to point out the elementary but crucial detail that he was below 18 when he had participated in the massacre of five members of a family on June 5, 2003. 

It was only after he spent nine years in jail (first as an undertrial prisoner and then as a death row convict) has the injustice suffered by Shinde been redressed. And even this is because of the fortuitous circumstance of his cause being espoused by a human rights lawyer and his case going before a sessions judge who dared to get in the way of a sentence upheld by the apex court.

In his 34-page order, Joshi declared that Shinde was a “juvenile in conflict with law” on the date of the crime as his age then was found to be 17 year, nine months and fifteen days. 

The basis of the declaration was eminently routine: the date of birth mentioned in the school admission register and school leaving certificate, which are accepted in law as conclusive proof of age. 

This means that instead of being sent to jail and tried along with co-accused before a regular court, Shinde’s case should have been placed before a juvenile justice board and he should have been sent to a reformatory. 

In keeping with this strange background, Joshi directed that Shinde, who is “awaiting death sentence”, be taken out of Nagpur’s central prison and produced before Nashik’s juvenile justice board. Since he has already been behind bars for thrice the maximum term he could have got under the juvenile justice law, the only thing that the board is expected to do now is to release him, with immediate effect.