NEW DELHI -- Prosecutors requested the death penalty on Wednesday for four men convicted of participating in the rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in December, calling the crime "a case of extreme depravity" and arguing that the public would be outraged if the men were not hanged.
"The common man will lose faith in the judiciary if the harshest punishment is not given," Dayan Krishnan, a special prosecutor, told the judge in the case, who is expected to deliver the sentences -- either the death penalty or life in prison -- for each man on Friday.
But A.P. Singh, a defense lawyer, called execution "a primitive and coldblooded and simplistic response to complex issues."
"Awarding the death penalty will not end crime in the streets," Mr. Singh said, according to pool reporters in the courtroom.
Both views represent powerful strains in Indian society.
India has steadfastly resisted efforts to repeal the death penalty, which was codified under British rule. But it almost never carries out executions, and a 1980 Supreme Court ruling confines their use to "the rarest of rare cases." Only three people have been hanged in the last nine years -- one found guilty of murder and rape and two convicted of participating in terrorist attacks.
The gang rape of the young woman in December, detailed minutely by India's news media, has provided a test for an ambivalent country. In a rush of emotion, the Indian government amended the criminal code so that the death penalty could be applied in particularly brutal cases of rape. In a statement to a court official before her death, the victim herself called for the men's death.
"They should be hanged, so that such an incident does not happen with another woman," the statement read, according to text provided to IANS, a news agency. "They should be burned alive."
Prosecutors on Wednesday projected confidence, focusing their argument largely on the disturbing nature of the crime: When the victim and a male friend boarded a private bus, hoping for a ride home, the men attacked them, knocking the man unconscious and taking the woman to the back of the bus. They raped her, then severely damaged her internal organs with a metal rod. They dumped the two on the roadside, naked and bleeding.
Her injuries were so severe that she died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.
"The test is, 'Was the collective conscience shocked?' " Mr. Krishnan asked on Wednesday, according to pool reports. "There can be no better example than this case." He described the crime as "diabolical" and said, "There is no element of sympathy in the way this helpless woman was tortured." As a precedent, Mr. Krishnan cited the case of a watchman who was hanged in 2004 for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl.
This view is widely supported by the public. Shabnam, a 40-year-old housewife who was watching the furor around the courtroom on Wednesday, said India would benefit from dispensing with the legal niceties in rape cases.
"They are like worms, and if were up to me, I would gather all these worms together and kill them," she said of the defendants. "And if that happened to my daughter, I would take a sword and cut them into pieces."
The defense could take some comfort in a 1980 judgment by the Supreme Court, which overturned a death sentence for a convicted murderer and introduced the phrase "rarest of the rare cases." Prisoners are entitled to appeal to the Supreme Court and finally to the president, a process that can stretch out into years; 477 people are now on death row, according to Amnesty International.
V.K. Anand, who defended one of the convicted men, Mukesh Singh, noted that his client had shown compassion during the trial, instructing him not to challenge the victim's mother in court.
"Mukesh told me, 'Don't cross-examine the girl's mother -- she has lost her daughter, leave her alone,' " he said. "I could have grilled her, could have brought out other things." His client, he went on, had no criminal record, was under the influence of alcohol and was driving the bus while the woman was attacked.
"At best, he can be held for aiding the others," he said. "He can't be given death for this."
Vivek Sharma, the lawyer for another defendant, a fruit seller named Pawan Gupta, challenged the judge's crucial finding that the attack was a premeditated conspiracy, saying there is "a possibility that it happened on the spur of the moment." He noted that his client was 19, which he described as "a tender age."
"A possibility of his reformation is there," he said.
But the defendants and their lawyers could not feel much certainty as they exited the courthouse on Wednesday, threading their way through a crowd of agitated protesters whose customary chant, "Hang the criminals," was accompanied by a new one, "Hang the lawyers." One man held up a piece of yellow poster board with a childish drawing of four men stepping forward into hangman's nooses.
And many were braced for Friday's ruling, which could set precedents for the country's use of the death penalty. Karuna Nundy, an lawyer who has argued before India's Supreme Court and the High Court of New Delhi, said she was frustrated by the argument that the death penalty would keep men from committing rapes, despite its undeniable appeal to the general public.
"The government needs to lead the people, not the other way ′round," she said. "Wiping out four men is neither here nor there. We need to strike at the root of the problem."
Correction: September 11, 2013, Wednesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the judge who issued the 240-page ruling. The judge, Yogesh Khanna, is a man.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.