What Surinder Koli needs is a doctor, not a hangman.
The death penalty is abhorrent on both moral and legal grounds. Judges can and do make mistakes. Global evidence has established that capital punishment does not deter crimes. The majority of those sent to the gallows are socially and economically disadvantaged people with weak legal representation. But above all, the humane purpose of punishment is reformation rather than retribution, and even those who cause us the worst injury still deserve our compassion.
Surinder Koli is one such man. Convicted of killing at least 16 children, raping them dead or alive, chopping them into pieces and eating their flesh, does even such a man merit any kindness? Is this not one case in which the world is better off without him? But his case — gruesome as it is — only reinforces my resolute opposition to the death penalty.
To begin with, Koli’s guilt is far from obvious. It is extraordinary that his conviction depends entirely on his confession to a magistrate. He admits to all these crimes, but also says that he was both tortured and tutored by the police. The law mandates that a confession is rendered irrelevant if caused by inducement, threat or promise. Therefore his testimony should have been thrown out, but judges chose to accommodate it, perhaps because there was no other evidence to prove who was responsible for these dreadful crimes. His statement that he was tutored and tortured is not even mentioned or discussed in the trial or higher court judgements.
An expert committee of the Government of India in 2007 raised many doubts about the theory that all the killings in the area were undertaken by Koli for cannibalism. The torsos of all the bodies were missing and removed with surgical precision, suggesting the possibility of organ trade. The committee also wondered why no one complained about the stench of the bodies, or saw them being dumped in daylight, or why all had been reduced so quickly to skeletons. In addition, more bodies were found than Koli admitted to killing, and children continued to disappear in the area even after Koli’s arrest. In the one case that reached judicial completion with Koli’s mercy plea being rejected, there is now doubt that the victim may be alive and married in Nepal.
The possibility therefore cannot be ruled out that the police, under powerful pressures of national public wrath, used Koli as a convenient and powerless scapegoat for a multitude of grave crimes whose real culprits could not be found.
I have read the transcript of Koli’s confession through which he indicted himself, and what is immediately apparent is that he is psychologically profoundly disturbed and traumatised. He testifies that when his employer called multiple sex-workers into the home, pressure would mount in his mind to have sex, kill people, cut them up and eat them. He would be unable to control these pressures, and would ultimately stand outside the house and lure in any child or woman he found passing by, strangle, try to rape, and then dismember and eat their body parts. If this trigger was absent — such as in a six-month period during which his employer’s friend’s son lived with them — he felt no such pressures.
Many of these circumstances could not be brought on the record or argued because Koli was represented by a very poorly remunerated legal aid lawyer — typically paid Rs.2,000 for a trial — throughout the proceedings. No evidence by way of defence, mitigation, or medical opinion was led on his behalf.
If a crime results from a psychological disorder then, however gruesome and abhorrent the transgression, surely the humane, civilised, socially decent and constitutionally valid recourse would be to treat the problem, not eradicate the victim. What Koli needs desperately is clearly a doctor, not a hangman.
Would the world be a safer place if Koli is led to the gallows? Koli poses no threat to anyone: in jail for seven years, he has not assaulted or even threatened any person. Killing him would also not serve the objective of general deterrence because surely there are not many cannibals among us, and those few who may exist are unlikely to be in any condition to control their actions or learn a lesson from Koli’s fate.
Hanging Koli would only serve the purpose of collective retribution. And, what if children continue to go missing in Nithari and yet more bodies are found, as indeed has transpired in the seven years when Koli was in jail? Are we still willing to go so far to seek social revenge by killing a man who may not have acted out of violition but instead was compelled by a deeply diseased and disturbed mind.