Will Death Verdicts In India Reduce Sexual Assaults?

The trial of the men accused of the horrific rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi is over. Four of the accused were sentenced to death. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins host Rachel Martin from New Delhi to discuss the question of whether anything will change.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Cheers of joy erupted outside a courtroom in Delhi, India on Friday after four men were sentenced to death. They had been convicted of rape in what is likely the most high-profile rape case India has ever seen. The 23-year-old victim died of internal injuries two weeks after she was attacked on a public bus last December. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us now from Delhi to talk about the long-term implications this case might have for India. Julie, the attack on this woman ignited all kinds of protests throughout India. Tens of thousands of people were in the streets. Now, nine months after this has happened, what has changed?

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Well, I think in not a small way, Rachel, we're sort of watching this trial was to watch a society in the midst of change. There's no question it ignited debate about the tide of sexual assault in India, the prevalence of it. There is no solution on that yet, but many Indians will tell you that the public acknowledgment of this crime that had been in the shadows for so long and in fact it's now out in the open, it was terribly significant. They say the case lifted a taboo and violence perpetrated against women is now the subject of conversations from teahouses to kitchen tables. And in this prevailing hyper-competitive media atmosphere, you cannot open a newspaper today without seeing a story about rape. It was not highlighted before. It is now.

MARTIN: The judge in this case called the attack cold-blooded murder. But, as you know, this is a country where rape is sadly quite common and conviction rates for the crime can be very low. Has there been any effect on the court system, on the police?

MCCARTHY: Well, interestingly, you know, the case did peel back the curtain on how poorly the state has investigated these crimes. You talk about conviction rates. For example, the conviction rate has declined for the past dozen years. It stood at 42 percent nationally. It's less than 25 percent today. The courts need more capacity, more judges, more prosecutors, more police, better forensics. And there was an effort to create fast-track courts, to try violent sexual crimes in Delhi. That is a direct result of this case. And the fact that you have just 14 judges for every one million people in India tells you the burden of the courts. And that backlog is in the hundreds of thousands of cases. And with that, you get a culture of impunity. Criminals think they can get away with it, and they often do.

MARTIN: I understand the Indian parliament has strengthened the sexual assault laws in the country as a result of this case. What will that mean?

MCCARTHY: Well, it'll likely add to the number of cases. And parliament really did that because thousands of protesters took to the streets to galvanize public opinion against sexual violence. And they really forced parliament to toughen penalties, expand the definition of crimes against women. And police who don't take these cases seriously stand to be charged with an offense themselves. And now, if a victim is sexually assaulted to the extent that she's left in a, quote, "vegetative state," the death penalty applies.

MARTIN: Many of the protesters on the streets in India did call for these men to get the death penalty. How common is that punishment?

MCCARTHY: Well, there are 477 people on death row, according to government statistics. But, you know, Rachel, the norm over the decades has shifted from sending convicts to their death to life in prison. And when the death penalty is imposed here, there would appear to be a deep reluctance about actually carrying out the executions. In fact, in the past eight or nine years, there have been only three people executed in India. In the past 10 years, thousands of cases of capital punishment have been either commuted or overturned by higher courts to life in prison.

MARTIN: And just very quickly, Julie, any chance this particular sentence could get overturned?

MCCARTHY: There's always that chance. But as you pointed out, the public opinion here, the public sentiment in this case was so strongly for the death penalty because people were so shocked by the brutality of the crime. That may obtain in the higher court.

MARTIN: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Delhi. Thanks so much, Julie.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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