A crucial learning from the Death Penalty Research Project was the dearth of quality legal representation for prisoners on death row. Towards this end, one of the earliest tasks undertaken by the Centre was to secure quality pro bono legal representation for indigent death row prisoners.
The Centre’s litigation efforts have expanded significantly over the year and we now have a full-fledged litigation team with 6 litigation associates and 2 mitigation associates. The Centre is involved in the cases of over 50 prisoners on death row from across 12 states. Current litigation is predominantly in the Supreme Court through criminal appeals, open court review petitions, and writs. Slowly, but steadily, the Centre’s litigation efforts are expanding to various High Courts through assistance in confirmation hearings and writs seeking access to prisoners’ health records, urging juvenility claims, challenging improper rejections of mercy petitions, etc.
From the defense of individual death row prisoners to mounting systematic and incremental challenges to the administration of the death penalty in India, it is the Centre’s endeavour to engage with the criminal justice system in meaningful ways. Small yet significant victories in the past have been the due process requirements in issuing death warrants laid down by the Supreme Court in Shabnam v. Union of India (May 2015) and a successful review of the Supreme Court Constitution Bench’s decision in Md. Arif v. Union of India to secure the relief of an open court review hearing even for death row prisoners whose curatives have been dismissed (January 2016). We have managed to secure the acquittal of one prisoner on death row, and the commutation of 4 prisoners.
Ensuring equal attention to arguments on both conviction and sentencing is integral to the Centre’s litigation ethic. Another central component of our litigation efforts is maintaining regular communication and making visits to the prisons that lodge the prisoners whose representation we are involved in. Significantly, robust mitigation investigations are being conducted in our cases through extensive interviews with prisoners and key informants in their lives, in addition to seeking advice from experts in the study of social circumstances, psychiatry, developmental psychology, etc., in order to provide a nuanced understanding of prisoners’ backgrounds before a sentencing court.
Litigation efforts at the Centre have been made possible by the generous and dedicated support provided by a growing network of Senior Advocates, Advocates-on-Record, and Advocates from across the country.
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