Debate on Capital Punishment


  • GS Mains paper IV, Ethics
  • Ethics, Debate on capital punishment, Justice Kurien’s judgment

Why in News?

  • On 28thNov 2018, Justice Kurian Joseph, while commuting death penalty in a triple murder case, opined that “a time has come where we view the need for death penalty as a punishment, especially its purpose and practice”.


  • In questioning the merits of retaining the death penalty, Justice Kurian Joseph has re-ignited a debate that is important and requires serious thought.
  • The law has already laid down the guidelines for awarding death in ‘the rarest of rare cases’ in Bachan Singh (1980). In this case, the court had upheld the capital punishment while laying down certain guidelines for it.
  • Justice Joseph has underscored the arbitrary manner in which it is awarded by different judges and the way public discourse influences such decisions.
  • In Bachan Singh, the bench upheld the constitutionality of the death sentence primarily because the 35th report of the Law Commission, submitted in 1967, justified its retention, based on responses to its questionnaires sent to persons from different walks of life.
  • There has been a tidal change in public opinion since then.
  • The 262nd report of the Law Commission, prepared and submitted in 2015, following a request made by the Supreme Court itself, took a different view, after extensive research and with a slant towards an international approach.

The ethical debate:

Let us now discuss the principles that lie behind capital punishment:

  • Retribution
  • Deterrence
  • Rehabilitation
  • Prevention of re-offending
  • Closure and vindication
  • Incentive to help police
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