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Anthony Ray Hinton Spent Almost 30 Years on Death Row. Now He Has a Message for White America.

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Anthony Ray Hinton was mowing the lawn at his mother's house in 1985 when Alabama police came to arrest him for 2 murders he did not commit. One took place when he was working the night shift at a Birmingham warehouse. Yet the state won a death sentence, based on 2 bullets it falsely claimed matched a gun found at his mother's home. In his powerful new memoir, "The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row," Hinton describes how racism and a system stacked against the poor were the driving forces behind his conviction. He also writes about the unique and unexpected bonds that can form on death row, and in particular about his relationship with Henry Hays, a former Klansman sentenced to death for a notorious lynching in 1981. Hays died in the electric chair in 1997 - 1 of 54 people executed in Alabama while Hinton was on death row.
After almost 30 years, Hinton was finally exonerated in 2015, thanks to the Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI. On April 27…

No Mercy: Pranab Mukherjee rejected 30 mercy petitions as President

Pranab Mukherjee
Pranab Mukherjee
As president, Pranab Mukherjee rejected 30 mercy petitions, a number greater than the combined total of mercy petitions rejected by his four immediate predecessors.

Next Tuesday, when Pranab Mukherjee demits the office of the President of India, he will leave behind an in-tray empty of any mercy petitions requesting him to commute a death sentence to life. 

Over the five years of his presidency, Mukherjee has disposed of 34 mercy pleas (35, if you consider the case of 1993 Mumbai serial blasts financier Yakub Memon who, unsuccessfully, appealed for the presidential pardon twice).

Mukherjee has rejected 30 mercy petitions (31, again, if you include Memon's follow-up plea), and has given fresh leases on lives in four cases. His record of rejecting mercy petitions is unparalleled among his immediate predecessors and, in the history of the Indian republic, is second only to President R Venkatraman, who rejected 45 mercy pleas.*

When Mukherjee's successor, who trends suggest will likely be Dalit leader and Bharatiya Janata Party member Ram Nath Kovind, takes office, they will have no pending mercy pleas to act upon, an event that hasn't happened in three presidencies.

When Pranab Mukherjee became president on July 25, 2012, he inherited at least 10 pending pleas for mercy, including one from President Kocheril Raman Narayanan's term (1997-2002).

In fact, President KR Narayanan and his successor President Abdul Kalam (2002-2007) hold the distinction of sitting on mercy petitions, or what the Law Commission said in a 2015 report, putting the "brakes on the disposal of mercy petitions."

President Narayanan did not act upon a single mercy petition sent to him, while President Kalam disposed of a grand total of two pleas - commuting one, rejecting the other.

The ten years of indecision under Narayanan and Kalam were in stark contrast to the term of Pratibha Patil (2007-2012), India's first female president who quickly became known for being one of India's most lenient head of state.

Patil's term saw 34 commutations and five rejections. Only India's first two presidents (Rajendra Prasad with 180 commutations and Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan with 57) accepted more mercy petitions than she did.

RUBBER STAMP?


Under the Indian constitution, the president acts on the advice of the executive, i.e. the prime minister and his cabinet. And so, the argument has often been made that a president's decision - on mercy petitions or otherwise - should be seen in context of the political dispensation in power.

However, the 20 years of presidents Mukherjee, Patil, Kalam and Narayanan have been divided almost equally between governments led by the Congress (2004-2014) and the BJP (1998-2004; 2014-now).

Furthermore, the constitution does not set a time frame in which the president must act upon a mercy plea, though the Supreme Court has indirectly set some restrictions by ruling that an inordinate delay in settling a mercy petition could be grounds for commuting a death sentence altogether.

This allows presidents to express dissent by refusing to act on a mercy petition, a trend seen during the Narayanan and Kalam years.

There have also been precedents, though rare, of presidents going against government advice - just this year, President Mukherjee commuted to life the death sentences of four men, going against the Centre's recommendation.

An analysis of denials (or commutations) of mercy pleas suggests that the person occupying the president's chair does matter, even though the Rashtrapati Bhavan has sought to argue otherwise in the past, for example, in 2012, when it released a statement on behalf of Pratibha Patil to convey essentially that the president acts on behalf of the government and not out of her own will.

The Law Commission in its 2015 report too noted the influence a president has on deciding mercy petitions, saying, "A perusal of the chart of mercy petitions disposed by Presidents suggests that a death-row convict's fate in matters of life and death may not only depend on the ideology and views of the government of the day but also on the personal views and belief systems of the President."

HOW PRESIDENTS HAVE ACTED ON MERCY PLEAS


Based on data collated by the Law Commission, here's how India's presidents have dealt with mercy petitions:

  • Rajendra Prasad accepted 180 mercy pleas and rejected just one.
  • Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan allowed 57 mercy petitions while rejecting none.
  • Zakir Hussain did not send a single man to the gallow, accepting 22 mercy pleas.
  • VV Giri too did not reject a mercy petition, and accepted three pleas.
  • Fakrudhin Ali Ahmed and N Sanjeeva Reddy did not deal with any mercy petitions in their tenures.
  • Zail Singh rejected 30 mercy petitions, allowing just two.
  • R Venkatraman holds the record of rejecting the highest number of mercy pleas - 45. He allowed five petitions.
  • SD Sharma did not hand out a single commutation, rejecting 18 pleas for mercy.
  • KR Narayanan kept all mercy petitions pending.
  • APJ Kalam ruled on just two pleas, rejecting one and accepting the other.
  • Pratibha Patil commuted 34 mercy petitions and rejected five.
  • Pranab Mukherjee rejected 30 mercy petitions and allowed four.


HOW MERCY PETITIONS ARE DECIDED


Once the Supreme Court gives in its final ruling in a death penalty case, a convict on the death row can approach the president directly, via prison officials, via the Union Home Ministry or via the governor of the state where he/she is incarcerated.

The president then seeks the opinion of the Union cabinet, which is provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The president might, in some cases, send the MHA's recommendation back for further clarifications. The Home Ministry may also recall its recommendation in order to provide a fresh opinion.

Once the MHA submits a recommendation, the President will then accordingly decide upon a mercy petition. However, there is no set time frame within which a President must act.

* The numbers in this article are based on data collated by the Law Commission in its 2015 report. However, in a hallmark of Indian bureaucratic record keeping, exact figures on the mercy petitions rejected or allowed by India's first few presidents aren't easily available. Even the Law Commission in its report noted that the figures it was able to collate were based on empirical verification from the archives which may not be complete.

Source: India Today, Dev Goswami, July 18, 2017

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