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In law, extenuating circumstances in criminal cases are unusual or extreme facts leading up to or attending the perpetration of the offense which, although an offense has been perpetrated without legal justification or excuse, mitigate or reduce its gravity from the point of view of punishment or moral opprobrium.
England and Wales
According to English and Welsh procedure, the jury has no power to determine the punishment to be awarded for an offense. The sentence, with certain exceptions in capital cases, is within the sole discretion of the judge, subject to the statutory prescriptions as to the kind and maximum of punishment. It is common practice for juries to add to their verdict, guilty or not guilty, a rider recommending the accused to mercy on the ground of grave provocation received, or other circumstances which in their view should mitigate the penalty.
According to the Indian procedure the provision of Section 235(2) of Criminal Procedure Code calls upon the Court that the convicted accused must be given an opportunity of being heard on the question of sentence. This provides the accused an opportunity to place his antecedents, social and economic background and mitigating and extenuating circumstances before the court.
Besides the statutory provisions, the Constitution of India also empowers the President and the Governor of the State to grant pardon to the condemned offenders in appropriate cases. These powers are, however, co-extensive with the legislative powers. The power to cut short a sentence by an act of executive in India and elsewhere. It is significant to note that the controversy raised in this regard in Nanavati's case has been settled by the Supreme Court once for all in the case of SARAT CHANDRA V/S. KHAGENDRA NATH which affirmed the principle that sentencing power of judiciary and executive are readily distinguishable.
Quite independently of any recommendation by the jury, the judge is entitled to take into account matters proved during the trial, or laid before him/her after verdict, as a guide to determining the quantum of punishment.
Under French law (Code d'instruction criminelle, art. 345), it is the sole right and the duty of a jury in a criminal case to pronounce whether or not the perpetration of the offense was attended by extenuating circumstances (circonstances atténuantes). They are not bound to say anything about the matter, but the whole or the majority may qualify the verdict by finding extenuation, and if they do, the powers of the court to impose the maximum punishment are taken away and the sentence to be pronounced is reduced in accordance with the scale laid down in art. 463 of the Code penal. The most important result of this rule in earlier times was to enable a jury to prevent the infliction of capital punishment for murder (now abolished).
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Extenuating Circumstances". Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 86.