In The Shadow Of Death: True Stories of Convicts Facing Death Penalty Review by DV Guruprasad: Do killers regret their past deeds?

Retired IPS officer DV Guruprasad enters the minds of prisoners living on death row

Retired IPS officer DV Guruprasad enters the minds of prisoners living on death row

By the time DV Guruprasad retired as Managing Director, CID, Karnataka, he had dealt with various types of crimes and criminals. Few cases left a lasting mark, due to the nature and reason of the crime committed.

An event held to counsel terminal cancer patients made him see the patients undergo three types of reactions – denial, hope and surrender – and it made him wonder about the criminals he had interviewed who were on death row. They too stare death in the face, but do they experience the same agony, fear and depression as patients in the advanced stages of cancer?

He delved deep into the minds of some imprisoned convicts, whose crimes he had investigated as an officer and met them inside the prison, as an ordinary citizen after retirement. The result is a crime thriller that features true stories of eight killers, as varied as possible. While the meetings have changed his perspective on them, Guruprasad gives readers a rare glimpse into the psyche of death row inmates.

The well-paced and tense book is significant in two respects: in India, the death penalty is handed down in the rarest of cases, and as a result, it’s gripping to know why the horrific murders highlighted in the book cogently match to the description of this rarity of a punishment.

death row syndrome

Second, Guruprasad explores death row syndrome (DRS) in Indian prisons. It is defined as a state in which a person tends to forgo medical and legal intervention and volunteer for execution, given the dehumanizing effects of prolonged life on death row. During his research, Guruprasad realized the lack of studies on death row inmates. The research done so far is based on people sentenced to solitary confinement in the West.

A 2005 article by American psychiatrist Harold I. Schwartz mentioned that severe conditions of confinement produce severe psychopathological reactions in humans; another paper by Dr. Stuart Grassian, in 1986, discussed extreme anxiety, dissociation, and full-blown psychosis as symptoms of SRD, even though the term is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. The National Law University of Delhi published an isolated study on the death penalty involving 373 prisoners in 20 states and focusing mainly on the detail of their socio-economic profiles and little on their mental health.

He interacted with 40 convicts to understand their personality traits, why and how they got into crime, their mental state, whether they felt remorse, and their reactions to impending death.

The narrative is chilling as you read about a serial killer who befriended young women to satisfy his lust before poisoning them with cyanide; the savage Dandupalya gang that terrorized the city of Bengaluru in the 1990s; a woman on the run who got into random murders because she found it an easy way to make do with the loot for her survival; a constable who brutally killed women to feed his underwear fetish.

Lack of remorse

Guruprasad found a strong underlying common thread among the murderers – the lack of remorse and their vehement refusal to commit a crime surprised him. “During my career, I have overseen hundreds of criminal investigations; seeing suspects admit guilt and their confessions led to the discovery of hidden weapons, stolen property and the bodies of those killed,” he wrote. But inside the prison, he found them delusional.

Psychologist Melitta Schmideberg, quoted in the book, claims that criminals live in an imaginary world. The distortion of reality, the lack of reflection on the future and the delusional belief in their own intelligence make them deny the crime for which they are imprisoned. A report by the Law Commission of India says death row inmates suffer extreme agony or debilitating fear of the impending gallows. Many sink into depression or believe that God would intervene and save their lives.

The convicts that Guruprasad talks about are from Karnataka; but crime and criminality are not confined to any geographic region, he says. Whether in Delhi or Kerala, in the Andamans or in Rajasthan, they think the same way. According to him, 35 of the 40 convicts interviewed did not show psychopathological reactions or fear their imminent execution. Rather, they thought they would get a reprieve.

“The initial shock of being found guilty is fading. DRS is not a thing in Indian prisons and the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime as commonly believed,” says -he.

In the Shadow of Death: True Stories of Convicts Facing the Death Penalty; DV Guruprasad, Jaico Books, ₹399.

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