Conviction confirmed in Jessica Lal case

Print edition : May 21, 2010

MUSTAFA QURAISHI/AP

ON April 19, the curtain came down on the sensational Jessica Lal murder case with the Supreme Court rejecting the appeal of Sidhartha Vashisht alias Manu Sharma, son of an influential politician, against his conviction and sentence by the Delhi High Court.

The trial court had acquitted all the accused in the case, including Manu Sharma, as many witnesses had withdrawn their initial statements. The Delhi High Court, however, reversed the order, and sentenced the accused upon finding them guilty.

Jessica Lal was a bartender at a restaurant in Qutub Colonnade in the capital city. After a party at the restaurant on the night of April 29, 1999, Manu Sharma, son of former Union Minister and later Minister for Power in the Congress government in Haryana Vinod Sharma, asked Jessica Lal to serve liquor. When she refused saying there was no liquor available, he took out his pistol and fired one shot at her. She died within hours.

It was an easy case to prove, as there were nearly 100 persons present at the restaurant when the murder took place. Indeed, the prosecution examined as many as 101 witnesses. The trial court accepted Manu Sharmas presence on that night at the restaurant along with the other accused as having been proved.

Relying on circumstantial evidence, the prosecution submitted that Manu Sharma should be convicted for murder and the other accused, Vikas Yadav, Amardeep Singh Gill alias Tony Gill and Alok Khanna be convicted as they had all entered into a conspiracy to destroy the evidence in this case. But the trial court acquitted all the accused in 2006 on the plea that the key eyewitnesses had turned hostile.

The acquittal verdict, delivered by the then Additional Sessions Judge S.L. Bhayana, led to public outrage. The Delhi High Court, which heard the appeal against the acquittal, found Manu Sharma guilty of murdering Jessica Lal and sentenced him to life imprisonment together with a fine of Rs.50,000 to be paid to the family of the victim.

In its April 19 judgment, the Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices P. Sathasivam and B. Swatenter Kumar held that the presence of the accused at the scene of the crime had been proved through the ocular testimonies of several witnesses. The evidence connecting the vehicles and cartridges used at the site of the crime to Manu Sharma as well as his conduct after the incident (he first absconded but surrendered later) proved his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, it concluded.

Manu Sharmas counsel, Ram Jethmalani, had argued before the Supreme Court that non-disclosure of one of the ballistic reports to Manu Sharma by the prosecution had hampered the ends of justice. The Supreme Court Bench, however, disagreed, saying no prejudice had been caused to Manu Sharmas right to fair trial because of this non-disclosure.

The Supreme Court held that the High Court, as the appellate court, had all the necessary powers to re-evaluate the evidence presented before the trial court as well as the conclusions reached. Therefore, the High Court in this case had given cogent and adequate reasons reversing the order of acquittal.

However, the Supreme Court set aside the High Courts strictures against the trial judge and the Advocate General, saying that while correcting errors in judgment, appellate courts should not abandon judicial restraint.

The Bench observed that every effort should be made by the print and electronic media to ensure that trial by the media is avoided. Invasion of the rights of the accused is bound to be held as impermissible, it warned the media. The Bench conceded that trial by the media affected the accused to a very limited extent in this case. However, it was not, as Jethmalani had argued, tantamount to prejudice that should weigh with the court in taking any different view, it held.

V. Venkatesan

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