This article is written by Gaurav Prakash and Raj Tomar, practising advocates in Delhi.
While I was growing up in Delhi, there was this case, which always intrigued me. As a child, I still wonder how a person can shoot someone just because someone refused to give him a drink of his choice. Back then, I was just a school kid with no aim and ambition of being an advocate, but this case was always and will remain close to my heart. Justice in high-profile cases like this makes us believe our judiciary system does not discriminate between powerful and ordinary people, and there will always be a triumph of good over evil. As we all know, Delhi is full of rich and powerful families who have immense wealth and power and who have ever crossed their lines against the law. This case is also critical concerning the amount of involvement of mass media and social media in shaping the Justice to those who are not rich and powerful. This was the beginning of a media trial in this country, little that we know that this media trial will soon become bizarre.
Today it is sad to see that media houses to chase TRPs can go to any extent of insensitivity and callousness. Recently they have sensationalized the death of a famous Bollywood actor. I had seen the time when Media activism was crucial in Jessica Lal Murder’s case. The media shifted to showing paranormal and superficial incidents on prime time, and now the media has become an insensitive TRP hungry entertainment channel. News channels are not keen on showing news but are interested in making opinions and sometimes making fabricated news. Let’s cherish the old, ideal days of journalism and their effect on the Judicial system of our country. Let’s walk down to those lanes where the judiciary was indeed the fourth pillar of the country.
The timeline of Jessica Lal murder case
It was the starry night of April 29,1999; Miss Bina Ramani, one of Delhi’s famous socialites and a fashion designer, was throwing a lavish farewell party to her husband George Manihot, who was going to Canada for a world tour. Lt Miss Jessica Lal was also a model bar-maid at that party. After midnight, Manu Sharma walked in with three friends and demanded to be served liquor, offering ₹ 1000. Lal refused, and Sharma then fired a 22 calibre pistol at the ceiling as an intimidating act. Lal refused again, Sharma fired back and the second bullet hit Lal in the head, killing her. Mr Manu Sharma, a young educated guy who was in his early 20s, was carrying a gun and he shot dead a woman who was a decade elder to him, just because she refused to serve him a drink. This is the classic example of when one belongs to a rich and powerful family, and one is not in a habit to listen NO to their instruction. Their ego is more significant than someone’s life.
What happened after that was more bizarre, the shooting took place in the presence of more than 80 people in that party, but most of them in their statement to Police have stated they have left the party before midnight. When influential people like Big Businessmen, big bureaucrats, fashion designers, and people from the fashion industry were part of this party, it is sad. Still, very few dared to give a clear statement about what happened at the party. Only ten people came forward and testified that Ms Jessica Lal was hit by a bullet that was shot by a person who was at the same party. Shayn Munshi, who was there with Jessica Lal at the bar when she was shot, filed an FIR against Manu Sharma and his friends. The Police arrested Manu Sharma and his friendsMr. Vikas Yadav and Mr Amrinder Gill, aka Tony Gill, on his statement. On August 3, 1999 Charge sheet was filed against accused of killing Jessica under various sections of IPC.
On 23.11.2000, the Additional Sessions Judge of Delhi trial court framed charges against the appellant/Manu Sharma under Sections 302, 201 read with 120-B IPC and Section 27 of the Arms Act, accused Amardeep Singh Gill was charged under Section 120 read with Section 201 IPC, accused Vikas Yadav was charged under Section 120 read with 201 IPC as also Section 201 read with 34 IPC, accused Harvinder Chopra, Vikas Gill, Yograj Singh and Raja Chopra under Section 212 IPC and accused Alok Khanna, Shyam Sunder Sharma, and Amit Jhingan were discharged of all the offences. Three ballistic experts declared in their testimony that both the bullets were shooting from two different pistols. Then slowly, most witnesses turned hostile, which eventually led to the acquittal of all the nine accused in this case. The Delhi Police failed to sustain the grounds that they have made the case as the Delhi Police was unable to find the murder weapon.
This led to the widespread public outcry, and the brave and gutsy media came to the picture. News Magazine, like Tehelka, seized this opportunity to expose the loopholes of the trial. Many witnesses were secretly filmed, and they have confessed in the sting operation that they were bribed to turn hostile during the trial proceeding, and those who could not be bribed were given threats of dire consequences. The audio recording of the main accused he gave in the policy custody was also leaked in the media. In that audio, he confessed that on April 29, 1999, he was there at the party and demanded alcohol from Jessica Lal. Since his demands were not obliged with, he felt humiliated and in a rage to shoot Jessica Murder dead. Due to these sting operations, SMS campaigns for Justice for Miss Jessica Lal, and public pressure, the Police went to the High court, and an appeal was filed against this case.
The long road to justice
Due to a public campaign against the judgment of the trial court, the prosecution filed an appeal before the Delhi High Court being Cr No.193 of 2006. On 03.10.2006, Delhi High Court started hearing on this matter every day for the next 25 days. The host of the party and the owner of “Qutub Colonnade” Miss Bina Ramani, her husband Mr George, deposed against Manu Sharma. On 18.12.2006, Delhi High Court, in its judgment, considered Manu Sharma, Vikas Yadav and Amrinder Gill main accused in this case.
The High Court reversed the decision of the trial court and awarded life imprisonment to Manu Sharma and slapped a fine of Rs 50,000, while it awarded four years’ prison term with Rs 3,000 fine each for co-convicts Amardeep Singh Gill and Vikas Yadav. Every story has a hero, but in this story, we have two heroes: the unbiased, gutsy media, which played an essential role in waking the nation’s conscience, and the other is Miss Sabrina Lal. Sabrina Lal is the sibling of Miss Jessica Lal. During this fight against injustice, she lost her sister, then she lost her mother in the year 2000, and later her father, Mr Ajit Kumar Lal, died in 2006. It is not easy to fight against those who are rich and powerful and associated with a political party in power. In Feb 2006, Manu Sharma filed an appeal against this decision in the Supreme Court of India.
Trivia- Vikas Yadav, one of the co-accused, in this case, was imprisoned for four years. While he was out on bail in this case, Vikas Yadav committed Murder of Nitish Katara for which he got punished with 25 years of imprisonment.
Supreme Court judgment
On April 19, 2010, the Supreme Court of India approved the sentences in the Jessica Lal murder case. It said that the evidence regarding the actual incident, the testimonies of witnesses, the evidence connecting the vehicles and cartridges to the accused Manu Sharma, and his conduct after the incident prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The High Court has analyzed all the evidence and arrived at the correct conclusion. The Supreme Court accepted that there had been an element of “trial by media” but believed that it had not affected the decision of the Hon’ble Court.
Parole and road to redemption
During his imprisonment, Mr Manu Sharma was subject to a lot of parole. On September 24, 2009, the Delhi state government granted parole Manu Sharma for 30 days to attend his ailing mother and look after his family business. Manu Sharma appealed for extension in the parole period, and the court further extended his parole by 30 days. During his probation, Manu Sharma was seen partying in a night-club, and during one of his outings at a Delhi Nightclub, he was involved in a brawl with the son of a high ranked police officer. In November 2009, because of this brawl and media activism and on November 10, 2009, Sharma returned to Tihar Jail after the violation of his parole was confirmed.
Manu Sharma was granted limited parole from December 28, 2013, to January 5, 2014. This was done to allow him to sit for a Master’s degree in examinations in Delhi. During this time, he was also successful in pursuing a Law degree and a degree in Human Rights. In the year 2015, he even got married to a Maharashtra based woman. From November 2017, considering his exemplary conduct during the jail time, Mr Manu Sharma was moved to an open jail, and he was allowed to leave prison every day for work at 8 am and return at 6 pm. He also started an eponymous non-profit for the rehabilitation of prisoners. During his imprisonment, Manu Sharma involved in many social works, and he established the Siddhartha Vashishta Charitable Trust, which is managed by his mother and brother. The trust is intended to assist causes such as child education, cancer awareness and rehabilitation of prisoners, etc.
Release from jail
In a news interview, Sabrina Lal, who was the only fighter for Jessica Lal, said she has forgiven her sister Jessica Lal’s killer Manu Sharma and wouldn’t object to his release from Tihar jail. She said that her faith in Christianity made her forgive him after seeing the changes in Manu Sharma and his social work for a society he was doing with his mother and brother.
During COVID-19, a lot of prison inmates were getting released from Tihar Jail. On 11.05.2020, the Delhi Sentence Review Board (SRB) under the chairmanship of Delhi Home Minister, Mr Satyendra Jain, recommended a premature release of Manu Sharma. This was the sixth time when Manu Sharma’s plea for early release was placed before the Sentence Review Board (SRB). After getting approval of Lieutenant Governor of Delhi on the recommendation of SRB and after getting no objection from Sabrina Lal, Mr Manu Sharma was finally released from Tihar after serving 16 years in jail on 02.06.2020. However, he was supposed to be released after 23 years of imprisonment in jail. After coming out of prison, he gave an interview where he stated that he is now a changed person, and he will be grateful to Sabrina Lal for forgiving him.
In India, there are many incidents when media and public outrage play a vital role in giving justice to the victim who cannot withstand the power of the wealthy and affluent. In this case, though Manu Sharma has changed as a person and has accepted his guilt, there are many Manu Sharmas in jail who have altered and reconciled as a human being. Still, because they are not wealthy and affluent enough to start an NGO, they cannot prove their redemption. They are still waiting for their release; they are still waiting to get accepted in the society, by the community. Many activists and people related to women’s rights have objected to the premature release of Manu Sharma and has instead asked for capital punishment. The question arises what is right: in one place, our law talks about the reconciliation of the accused and the old age tradition of forgiving wrongdoing. In one place, society talks about the sturdy and non-lenient stand of legislation to set an example to the community that no one is above the law. Another matter of grave concern, in this case, was that of evidence and witness tampering prevalent in these cases and the role of the court to provide security to witnesses to prevent them from turning hostile. A lot has to go right for witness tampering to be a publicly acknowledged problem.
Moreover, we have shown that active legal institutions do not eliminate witness tampering and may even exacerbate it. A major open question remains the following: what determines the willingness of the media to expose witness tampering and the willingness of ordinary people to testify in the face of threats, specific or amorphous? Public outrage is seldom entirely spontaneous; it is often intentionally provoked. This may be done by media outlets to increase circulation or ratings or politicians for electoral advantage. Understanding this process, and therefore understanding how the contentiousness of Indian politics gives rise to such cases is an essential missing piece of our analysis. The central message of this article is that legal institutions alone are not enough to produce Justice, effective judicial systems require a balance of exit and voice. Open competition in politics and the media facilitates and amplifies voice expression, keeping blatant miscarriages of Justice occasionally in check.
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