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Bending the law

Three Murder cases have caught national attention since they focus on our criminal justice system, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2006 19:03 IST

Three Murder cases — those of Jessica Lall, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Nitish Katara — have caught national attention since they focus on our criminal justice system. Investigations and judgments in the Jessica and Mattoo cases have come in for criticism while the slow progress in the trial of the Katara case has caused anguish in legal circles as well as in civil society.

Public outcry over the development of the cases demonstrates that people are no longer willing to tolerate what they perceive as miscarriage of justice. But those agitating against the limitations in law have to acknowledge their faith in the prevailing system until the time amendments are made.

Significantly, most of the people who took out candlelight processions to highlight what they construe as miscarriage of justice have been making two statements simultaneously. On the one hand, they affirm their faith in the judicial system and on the other, state that they have no doubt about appropriate punishment to be given to the accused. In other words, they have already pronounced a guilty verdict on those acquitted by the sessions court in the Jessica and Mattoo cases and will not be satisfied with a contrary pronouncement. Still, what they are seeking is commendable and it is only because of their efforts that the cases have come under close scrutiny nationwide.

Yet, courts decide cases on the basis of the evidence on record and on how forcefully the prosecution has presented the case following investigations. The judge, after hearing arguments of both sides, reaches a conclusion, which, as stated earlier, is based on evidence. Assuming that the high court upholds the trial court’s judgment on the ground that there is no sufficient evidence to prove the guilt of the accused and, therefore, they should be given the benefit of doubt, how would our protestors react? Will they change their argument and say that they have no faith in the judicial system since its conclusion doesn’t endorse their belief? A difficult situation but that is how the law is across the democratic world. The premise is to let a thousand guilty people walk free as along as no innocent gets hanged.

There is no denying that all law-abiding citizens would want Jessica, Mattoo and Katara’s killers to be awarded the maximum punishment. The three cases should serve as examples of good investigations and an efficient judicial system. But the fact remains that courts are bound by certain legal parameters and have to reach their conclusions on the basis of what is placed before them. A trial by media or any other extraneous factor cannot be allowed to influence the course of a case.

Many acquittals have taken place on these grounds in the past. In India, the prosecution was unable to conclusively establish the complicity of Balbir Singh in the Indira Gandhi assassination case and Ram Jethmalani was able to get him released by exposing chinks in the prosecution theory. In the US, O.J. Simpson, whom many still believe to be his wife’s murderer, walked free. While we all stand for justice, there are limitations to our system, as there are to systems outside our country. While families of the victims deserve all sympathy and support, the bitter reality is that justice does not necessarily feed on emotions and public perception of who has committed the crime, but on the tenets of law.

An attempt to take corrective measures is being made by the Delhi Police in the Jessica Lall case, with a status report prepared by the Special Investigation Team probing the alleged lapses in the investigations to be submitted in the high court before the end of the month. The report’s submission may invite certain directions from the court on what action needs to be taken against which officer since every official’s role has been investigated and put on record by the SIT. Consequently, some of the officers whose role has raised doubts may find cases registered against them or may even face disciplinary proceedings if the court so directs.

In fact, the status report could indirectly also have a bearing on the Jessica case, in which an appeal against the lower court’s verdict is pending in the Delhi High Court. To begin with, the police have sought the views of the Home Ministry on what to do with the investigating officer of the case in terms of quantum of punishment. Similar steps may get initiated against others, including some retired officials of the CFSL.

In fact, it was in the course of investigations that evidence pertaining to forgery and cheating surfaced against Bina Ramani, a socialite at whose premises — Tamarind Court — Jessica Lall was shot dead in April 1999. Some may have criticised Ramani’s arrest, but it is for her to rebut serious criminal charges levelled against her. In the initial stages of the case, many eyebrows were raised when Ramani was not held for destruction of evidence on the plea that she would be a material prosecution witness. However, in the trial court, her’s as well as her daughter’s testimony seemed to have helped the defence more than the prosecution, since both failed to conclusively identify Manu Sharma as Jessica’s murderer. Her claims to the media after the trial verdict were not consistent with what she had said in court.

Since she is a socialite, her arrest has now been criticised by the Page 3 crowd, some of whom may not be conversant with the nitty-gritty of criminal investigations. The apathy and sympathy of the Page 3 people at different times have been on full display in the Jessica case. But there is no reason to lose faith in the criminal justice system. The aim should be for the real killers of Jessica Lall, Mattoo and Katara to be booked. Between us.