Author :Mansi Jain,
Sharda University, Uttar Pradesh
The Jessica Lal Case is one of the high-profile criminal cases that illustrate dramatically how witness tampering and public outrage can impact judicial outcomes in India. It was coined out that “Justice delayed is justice denied”. It proved that the same laws are different for different groups
In countries with high levels of inequality powerful criminal defendants offer incentives, bribes or coerce witness to change their statement in the court of law which leads to Miscarriage of Justice.
The incident took place at Tamarind Court, the swanky restaurant housed inside the Haveli Qutub Colonnade in South Delhi’s Mehrauli on April 29th 1999, a thursday night. This place was once known for its high society bashes where celebrities met socialites, but one such party resulted in shutters being pulled down forever on. Bina Ramani, a popular fashion designer was the owner of the aforesaid restaurant with unlicensed bar. On 29 April, a private farewell party was organized wherein various celebrities turned in including the fashion designer Rohit Bal and Hollywood actor Steven Seagal. The theme of the party was celebrities turning into bartenders and about three hundred people had reportedly been at the restaurant that night. Bina’s daughter Malini who was a fashion model invited her 34-year old fellow friend Jessica Lal, another model to the party. Jessica along with Shayan Munshi (model) was at the bar counter of that fateful night, when a political party’s politician Venod Sharma’s 24-year old son Siddharth Vashisht also known as Manu Sharma, walked in the Party with his other three friends- Amardeep Singh Gill Alias Tony, Vikas Yadav and Alok Khanna. Manu insisted and demanded to serve liquor, offering Rs 1000 for it from Jessica but as it was midnight the party was about to get over and even the bar had run out of liquor. She in return told him “I wouldn’t give you a sip even if you gave me a thousand bucks”.
After so many threats by Manu, Jessica refused it every time but then he lost his patience and fired an air shot to intimidate the girl. Then the altercation occurred between Sharma and Lal, Munshi was the prime witness following fewer celebrities who witnessed this gruesome crime. Taking advantage of the confusion, Manu and his friends ran out of the restaurant and left the scene.
An ambulance was called, and Jessica was taken to the Ashok Hospital from where she was shifted to Apollo hospital, where she was declared to be already dead. The FIR was filed against Manu and his friends, but they were reported absconding. After further investigation of the police for a few days, Khanna and Gill were arrested on 4th May and on 6th May after hiding, Sharma surrendered before a Court in Chandigarh.
No murder weapon was recovered while the investigation was going, it was presumed that it was passed on to one of Manu’s friend who had been visiting from the US and subsequently had returned to the US. Meanwhile, Socialite Bina Ramani, George Mailhot (her husband) and Malini Ramani (her daughter) were arrested under Section 61 and 68 of the Excise Act for running an illegal bar "Tamarind Court" where ramp model Jessica was shot dead. However, in a very short duration they were granted bail by the Delhi High Court.
The police also seized the passports of Bina Ramani, a British national; George Mailhot, a Canadian national and Malini Ramani, a U.S national. The Delhi Police arrested Manu, Vikas Yadav and 10 others in the case and filed a charge sheet against the accused. Manu was found guilty by numerous witnesses, including Jessica Lal’s fellow bartender Shayan Munshi, Bini Ramani’s husband, and a handful of others.
The charge sheets were filed with the Court on 3rd August of 1999. Manu Sharma, the main accused was charged under sections 302 (Punishment for murder), 201 (Disappearance of Evidence), 120(b) (Criminal Conspiracy) and 212 (Harbouring Suspects) of the Indian Penal Code,1860 and Sections 27, 54 and 59 of The Arms Act(1959). The 10 other accused, Vikas son of D P Yadav, who were all a Member of Parliament, Alok Khanna and Amardeep Singh Gill, Shyam Sunder Sharma, Amit Jhingan, Yograj Singh (Cricketer Yuvraj Singh’s Father), Harvinder Chopra, Vikas Gill, Raja Chopra, Ravinder Krishan Sudan and Dhanraj have all been charged under sections 120(b), 302, 201 and 212 of the IPC. The last three names were not apprehended. The Sessions Court framed charges against nine accused, discharging Amit Jhingan. This seemed simple but was not because huge celebrities and prominent people were involved in this case who could have erased all the shreds of evidence. When the trial began in May 2001, several prosecution witnesses turned hostile one by one, even the Police and the Judiciary tried to save the accused Manu Sharma and his friends. It is an incredibly sad reality where instead of fighting for justice the witnesses retracted from their initial statements and saved the opposition. The most shocking was the eyewitness Shyan Munshi, who was the complainant in the case, changed his testimony and turned hostile in an open Court. He stated that he did not see Manu Sharma killing Jessica Lal and claimed that the statement he signed earlier was written in Hindi, a language that he was not conversant with. While the case was being investigated which also delayed the entire trial, Shyan also introduced the "two guns" theory. By this theory, it appeared that the two cartridge cases were from two different guns. During the period from March 2002 to February 2006, the appellant was released on bail on different occasions by various orders of the High Court. With no witnesses or evidence, the case completely collapsed in the trial Court on 21st February 2006.
Manu Sharma and eight other suspects were acquitted of all charges by the Lower Courts. The grounds for their acquittal were first, No weapon was found by the police that was used to kill Jessica Lal and second, no such evidence was provided to support the claim that the two cartridges recovered from the crime scene were fired from the same weapon and lastly there was no strong circumstantial evidence to convict the accused. It was also presumed in the judgement that there was a lack of investigation from the side of the police.
REACTION TO ACQUITTAL
The Ruling sparked, a huge nationwide public outcry against what was perceived by the Court to be a gross miscarriage of justice. It should come as no surprise that the conviction rate in India is very low i.e 46 per cent as per today's statistics. During the weeks, there were numerous protest campaigns, marches organised and candlelight vigils. Hundreds of text messages and emails were sent to major News channels and Newspapers protesting against the “Injustice” and many claimed that Sharma’s innocence was only upheld because of his father’s powerful position in government and believed that the Court had purposefully overlooked evidence. The then President Abdul Kalam received a petition of 200,000 names collected by journalists at NDTV, and petitions asking the President of India to intervene in the matter and demanded a promised action. Following intense media and public pressure, the Delhi Police Commissioner, KK Paul announced a special team to investigate the way, the investigation that had been carried out, admitting that there were loopholes in the case. The case exposed the weakness of the system by creating pressure on the authorities.
APPEAL AND CONVICTION
On March 26th, 2006, only a month after the acquittal, the police appealed the case to the High Court of Delhi. It was not a fresh trial but an appeal based for re-examination of the evidence already considered by the Lower Courts. The Delhi High Court took up the case and conducted proceedings through a fast track trial, with daily hearings conducted over 25 days. Meanwhile, a News Magazine known as "Tehelka" conducted a sting operation to uncover the truth where two journalists posed as casting agents of a big Hollywood project, approached Munshi. During the conversation, he was asked to speak in Hindi so that the “agents” could test his fluency in the language. This all was taped via a hidden camera, it changed the whole investigation aspect, under this it was discovered Munshi not only conversed in fluent Hindi but also admitted that he could read and write in this language which he had earlier denied during the course of the investigation.
On 9th September 2006, this was shown on the TV Channel Star News whereas it also revealed that large bribes were given to other witnesses by Manu’s father. The witnesses were coerced also into retracting their initial testimony. Vinod Sharma was exposed in return he resigned from the Haryana Cabinet.
On 15th December 2006, the Delhi High Court overturned the Trial Court judgment. Manu Sharma was found guilty of having murdered Lal, based on existing evidence and two spent cartridges were recovered from Sharma’s car and matched the bullet recovered from Lal’s skull. Manu was convicted under Section 302 IPC and awarded sentence of life imprisonment with a fine of Rs. 50,000 while it awarded four years’ rigorous imprisonment with Rs 3,000 fine each for co-convicts Amardeep Singh Gill and Vikas Yadav. These two were convicted under Section 120B for conspiracy and Section 201 for the disappearance of evidence and the other eight were acquitted. Manu Sharma had appealed twice to the Supreme Court in the case, but his pleas were rejected. In April 2010, the Apex Court upheld the High Court order. In February 2011, the Delhi High Court directed that the Lower Court should start trial for perjury against Shyan Munshi and other prosecution witnesses who turned hostile earlier. Instead of awarding life imprisonment, the Government in Delhi paroled Sharma for various times. For Jessica’s family, it was a long and lonely battle.
Recently, on 2 June 2020, Manu Sharma was released from Tihar Jail by Delhi LG on grounds of good behaviour. Jessica Lal's sister Sabrina said, she had forgiven her sister’s killer Manu Sharma and wouldn’t object to his release from Tihar jail, where he has been serving his life term since 2006. In a letter to the Welfare Office of Tihar jail, Sabrina mentioned that “In this period, he has been doing good work for charity and helping inmates in jail, which I feel is a reflection of reform,”  she reportedly stated in the letter.
The Jessica Lal Case reveals several key aspects of the justice system of India in its current stage of development. Technology and modern media helped the case by making the symbol Jessica Lal and speedy trial to the people. However, India must also consider the long-term effects of social justice being controlled by mass communication. The Internet is not the best place to get reliable information, and some entities may take advantage of that ability to misinterpret facts.