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Blind man?s bluff

Public outrage over the outcome of Jessica Lall murder case is understandable, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2006 02:44 IST

The public outrage over the outcome of the Jessica Lall murder case is understandable, given that while the ramp model was shot at point-blank range in the presence of at least 40 to 50 persons, those accused of killing her have walked away free. What was projected as an open-and-shut case failed to yield an open-and-shut conclusion, largely because investigations were not up to the mark. Going by the judgment, an attempt was made from the very beginning of investigations to ‘frame’ prime suspect Manu Sharma by ‘padding’ evidence and introducing ‘false witnesses’.

What is even more surprising is that the police officers who supervised the investigations in one capacity or the other, now claim that they had pointed out that evidence had been tampered with. The question arises that when the investigations were directly being handled by these senior officers, who could have tampered with the evidence and how? Are they not themselves then guilty of serious lapse? Why was this fact not brought to the notice of the court at any stage during the trial? Their culpability is equal to those who, at the lower level, may have done what they are being accused of having done now. It is for superior officers to look into these charges or the courts to look into this aspect. But their ‘helplessness’ in preventing the case from getting diluted can’t be condoned.

To put the record straight, when the murder took place on April 29, 1999, V.N. Singh was Police Commissioner, Amod Kanth Joint CP, Southern Range, Sudhir Yadav DCP, South, Vivek Gogia addl. DCP, South and Surendra Sharma, the SHO at Mehrauli. Ajai Raj Sharma, who subsequently took over as commissioner, and present commissioner K.K. Paul came to Delhi Police after the probe had started and had no role to play in the investigations. By the time they realised that investigations had got botched up, it was too late.

The copy of the judgment with minute details about the investigations and pointers on how the case fell through was made available officially by the court only on Friday evening. The judgment shows how shoddy work by the police killed the case. Going through the judgment, it can be concluded that by following only a single assumption, that Manu Sharma had killed Jessica Lall, the police gave a go by to other assumptions which may have helped in convicting the ‘real’ killers. Veteran detectives say that although one moves from crime to criminal, in this case, the move was made from criminal to crime — leading to the padding of evidence.

Normally, while investigating a case of murder, the police collects evidence and then nails the accused. In this case, the accused was first named and then an attempt was made to collect evidence against him. The police followed only one lead which failed to get results and proved counter-productive. If there is public outrage today, it is because the case’s closure, where Jessica was killed in full view, has not been done. No one has been punished and no one penalised. This speaks volumes of our criminal justice system, police and judiciary included.

But there are other dimensions that may also have played a role. Manu Sharma’s father is a Congress leader and is, at present, a minister in the Haryana government. But if newspaper reports are to be recalled, the first call which Bina Ramani, the hostess of the party, made after the killing was to then Home Minister L.K. Advani’s house. This is not to suggest that Advani had anything to do with influencing the outcome but to drive home the point that people at the party were very well-connected.

We also know that another accused Vikas Yadav’s father D.P. Yadav had contested the Lok Sabha elections against Mulayam Singh Yadav from Sambhal on a BJP symbol. Even Jessica’s mother (who was not present) had taught many well- known people including the Gandhi siblings. There is also evidence that a number of police officials were present at the party that evening but had left before the shooting took place. Hollywood actor Steven Seagal had also been to Tamarind Court that evening, as had some leading designers and Page 3 people. But none of them testified. It may be in public interest to publish the guest list of those who attended the party in order to show how responsible our fellow citizens are. Therefore, singling out Shayan Munshi is not enough.

What about Malini Ramani who, according to the FIR, was present alongside Munshi who was at Jessica’s side when she was shot dead? In the trial court, under oath, she denied being present there at the time of the shooting. Why was the FIR allowed to be diluted later and false witnesses introduced? Why was no case registered against the hosts for destruction of evidence and criminal conspiracy?

What is also strange is that in normal circumstances, a case is investigated by the SHO under direct supervision of the ACP and DCP. But for some reason, many others also showed undue interest in the investigations and, therefore, may have influenced the course of the investigations. I had written on May 6, 2001 in this column, that the way things were going, no person would be convicted in the case. But it seems that police and prosecution believed that they were on the right path.

The question which now arises is that: will the State go in for an appeal? Jessica’s sister Sabrina has also made it known that it was for the State to do so. The remedy is to go in for an appeal to the high court as was done in the Priyadarshini Muttoo case. During the pendency of the appeal, the verdict will automatically be suspended. A fresh verdict will have to be given. Retrial is not the answer but the appeal must be filed within 90 days.

As for the police officers against whom the trial court has passed severe strictures, the lesser said the better. But an appeal could also lead to their being punished. Between us.