Murder of Jessica Lal
5 January 1965|
|Died||30 April 1999
Jessica Lal (1965–1999) was a model in New Delhi, who was working as a celebrity barmaid at a crowded socialite party when she was shot dead at around 2 am on 30 April 1999. Dozens of witnesses pointed to Siddharth Vashisht, also known as Manu Sharma, the son of Venod Sharma, a wealthy and influential Congress-nominated Member of Parliament from Haryana, as the murderer.
In the ensuing trial, Manu Sharma and a number of others were acquitted on 21 February 2006.
Following intense media and public pressure, the prosecution appealed and the Delhi High Court conducted proceedings on a fast track with daily hearings conducted over 25 days. The trial court judgment was overturned, and Manu Sharma was found guilty of having murdered Lal. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on 20 December 2006.
||This article reads more like a story than an encyclopedia entry. (January 2011)|
On 29 April 1999, Jessica Lal was one of several models working at an unlicensed bar at a party in the Tamarind Court restaurant, which was within the Qutub Colonnade, a refurbished palace overlooking the Qutub Minar in Mehrauli. By midnight the bar had run out of liquor and it would in any event have ceased sales at 12.30 am. After midnight, Manu Sharma walked in with his friends and demanded to be served liquor. Lal refused to serve Manu Sharma, who was with a group of three friends. He was ready to offer Jessica 1000 Rupees for it. Sharma then produced a 0.22 calibre pistol and fired it twice: the first bullet hit the ceiling which was to serve as a warning to Jessica not to refuse liquor, but when Jessica refused again, Sharma fired again and the second hit Jessica in the head and killed her.
A mêlee followed the shooting, during which Sharma and his friends — Amardeep Singh Gill, Vikas Yadav, and Alok Khanna — left the scene. Thereafter, it was reported that contact could not be made with Sharma's family, including his mother, and that they were "absconding". After eluding police for a few days, with the assistance of accomplices, Khanna and Gill were arrested on 4 May and Sharma on 6 May. The murder weapon was not recovered and was thought to have been passed on to a friend who had been visiting from the US and who may subsequently have returned there.
The case by now involved several prominent people. Manu Sharma himself was the son of Venod Sharma, who at the time of the shooting was a former minister of the national government and by the time of the subsequent trial was a minister in the Haryana state government. Yadav was the son of another state politician, D. P. Yadav. Bina Ramani, who had redeveloped the premises where the party took place, was a socialite and fashion designer who allegedly had contacts in high places and whose daughter Malini Ramani knew Lal as a fellow-model. Singh managed the distribution of Coca-Cola in Chandigarh.
Amit Jhigan, an accomplice of Sharma, was arrested on 8 May and charged with conspiring to destroy evidence, as it was believed that he had retrieved the pistol from its original hiding place near to the club. While he was remanded in custody, Yadav was still at large and it had also proved impossible to locate his father, who had promised to deliver his son to the police.
It had by now become clear that the party, which was claimed to be a farewell function for Ramani's husband, George Mailhot, had in fact been open to anyone willing to pay. Ramani, her husband, and her daughter Malini were arrested on the same day as Jhigan. They were charged with operating an illegal bar and, although released on bail, had to surrender their passports. There were several lines of inquiry regarding the family, including whether or not Ramani — a UK national — had the necessary permits to operate a business in India. Another concern was to establish whether or not she had concealed evidence by ordering the cleaning up of blood at the premises, although by 19 May it had been announced that charges relating to this alleged destruction of evidence could not be brought.
Yadav presented himself to Delhi police on 19 May but was able immediately to leave because he had acquired anticipatory bail papers. He claimed to have been in Bombay and elsewhere during the previous few weeks, and refused to comment regarding whether he had been in contact with his father. He admitted that Sharma had stayed with him on the night of the murder but denied being present himself at the Tamarind Club or having any knowledge of the events that had occurred there until the next day, when he told Sharma to surrender to the police. A complex legal situation involving his paperwork meant that the police did not arrest Yadav at that time. Subsequently, he had short spells in custody and longer periods when he was freed on bail, with decisions and overturnings of them being made in various court hearings.
Notably the murder occurred during the tenure of, Delhi Police Commissioner, V.N.Singh (May 1998 - June 1999); who also apprehended the notorious gangster Romesh Sharma, as well as Cell terrorism in Tihar jail along with massive RDX and arms, both attributed to the violent campaign for Khalistan.
Charge sheets were filed with the court on 3 August 1999. Sharma was charged with murder, destruction of evidence and other offences, while Khanna, Gill and Yadav faced lesser charges, including destruction of evidence, conspiracy and harbouring a suspect. Others similarly charged were Shyam Sunder Sharma, Amit Jhingan, Yograj Singh, Harvinder Chopra, Vikas Gill, Raja Chopra, Ravinder Krishan Sudan and Dhanraj. The last three named had not at that time been apprehended.
According to the BBC, India has a "snail-paced judicial system" and its conviction rate is below 30%. Seven years after the case was opened, on 21 February 2006, nine of the twelve accused were acquitted, including Sharma. Jhingan had already been discharged and both Ravinder Kishan Sudan and Dhanraj, were still at large. The prosecution had been affected by 32 of their witnesses becoming "hostile". These included Shayan Munshi, Andleeb Sehgal, Karan Rajput, Shiv Lal Yadav and two ballistics experts, Roop Singh and Prem Sagar. Subsequently, in February 2011, it was announced that all 32 would be facing charges for perjury.
The trial judge commented after the outcome that
The court has acquitted them because the Delhi police failed to sustain the grounds on which they had built up their case. The police failed to recover the weapon which was used to fire at Jessica Lal as well as prove their theory that the two cartridges, emptied shells of which were recovered from the spot, were fired from one weapon.
The Hindu newspaper also reported that the judge was aware that the prosecution was not assisted by the hostility of their witnesses, three of whom had seen the shooting, and by the fact that forensic examination contradicted police claims that two cartridges found at the scene were fired from the same weapon. Finally, the judge believed that the police had failed to provide a sufficient explanation of the chain of events which led up to the killing.
Basis for Acquital
Manu’s mobile phone (9811096893) was never seized nor its SIM card recovered.
• No witness was produced to prove that Manu had arrived at Qutub Colonnade, the Delhi restaurant-cum-bar where Jessica was shot dead in 1999, in his black Tata Safari.
• Contradiction in police statements on the recovery of the Tata Safari. While sub-inspector Sunil Kumar said the car was found at Karnal, inspector Surender Sharma claimed it was recovered from Sector 24, Noida.
• Sharma said a broken piece of glass from a Tata Safari was recovered from the getaway vehicle, but this was not mentioned in the seizure memo.
• Failure to lift fingerprints from the Tata Safari.
• Non-recovery of the weapon of offence.
• Delay in serving arrest warrant to Manu.
• Too many changes in the statements of Delhi home guard Shravan Kumar, brought by the police as witness. Letting off the accused, the judgment said the home guard and another police witness, Deepak Bhojwani, did not see the crime but were produced to implicate Manu.
• Alleged switching of empty cartridges found at the scene.
The police came across several crucial aspects that were not explored properly but did not include these findings in their appeal to Delhi High Court against or for the acquittal of all the nine accused ,or at least some of them.The basis to this is the preparation of her own report by counsel Mukta Gupta, appearing for the Delhi Police.It is customary for the public prosecutor or state counsel to present only those facts that they think are mandatory.
Post-mortem: The post-mortem report on Jessica’s injuries was not properly discussed. Dr R.K. Sharma, who conducted the post-mortem, only stated in court that her death was caused by a bullet injury in the head.
Some senior police officers believe the report could have been further explored.
“Apart from the injury, the size of the wound, its probable angle and other aspects could have been put forth in a bid to connect the empties (empty cartridges) recovered from the spot to the injury.
“A technical examination could also have helped in establishing whether the bullet that hit Jessica was of .22 bore (the one owned by the prime accused in the case) or any other bore,” an officer said.
Site plan: The second important piece of evidence that appears not to have been brought in is the “site plan” of the scene of murder.
The site plan is prepared immediately after a crime occurs. The investigating officer draws a sketch of the scene pointing out the spot where the body of the victim was lying, its direction, the manner in which it was lying, the weapon found, if any, and the location of other evidence collected from the site.
While the site plan helps the investigating officer remember important points about the case, it also helps him explain easily to the court how the crime unfolded.
In Jessica’s case, the post-mortem report and the site plan could have helped the police counter the two-weapon theory that saved Manu, or establish the authenticity of the two-weapon theory to save Manu.The pros and cons were never established in view of allegations, that Manu was framed by Delhi police.
The police had said Manu fired two shots, of which one hit Jessica. But the two empties at the spot were found to belong to different weapons ' suspected to be the result of a switch ' giving rise to the two-weapon theory.
Referring to the testimony of home guard Shravan Kumar, who claimed that he had given a lathi blow on the glass pane of the car when it was taken away by the accused after the incident, Manu's lawyer Naseem said he was a planted witness. "No witness had seen that the car was driven by my client on the fateful night," Naseem said and argued that the car was allotted to Harbinder Chopra, Executive Director of the Piccadilly company and the car was registered in its name and not Sharma's.
Reaction to acquittal
The reaction to the verdict was one of outcry. The New York Times described the situation a fortnight later
Most noticeably among India's urban middle class, the acquittal has released a pent-up frustration with an often blundering and corrupt law enforcement bureaucracy and a deep disgust with the rich and famous who, by all appearances, manipulated it to their advantage.
There were numerous protest campaigns, including ones involving SMS and email, seeking to obtain redress for the perceived miscarriage of justice. Rallies and marches took place, as well as candelit vigils.
V. N. Khare, a former Chief Justice of India, implicitly criticised the trial judge, saying that it should have been an "open and shut" case and that
Sometimes when the police, the prosecution and the lawyers all have connections with the criminals, the judge should be slightly proactive. He should try to get to the truth, and not depend totally on the evidence provided in court. In a case like this, he is not going to get proper evidence. Mostly the judiciary is depended on the evidence provided by the investigative agencies, but now when the situation is so bad, the judges have to wake up, be proactive and find the truth.
The Delhi police commissioner announced an investigation to determine where things had gone wrong, and said that among other things it would examine whether there had been a conspiracy, including possibly by tampering with the evidence.
Appeal and conviction in High Court
The police petitioned the High Court for a review of the case and on 22 March 2006 the court issued warrants against the nine defendants who had stood trial. Eight of them were subsequently bailed in April, with restrictions imposed on their ability to leave the country. The ninth defendant, Gill, had not been traced since the original issue of warrants in March.
On 9 September 2006, a sting operation by the news magazine Tehelka was shown on the TV channel STAR News. This appeared to show that witnesses had been bribed and coerced into retracting their initial testimony. Venod Sharma was named in the exposé as one who had paid money to some of the witnesses. Facing pressure from the central Congress leaders, Venod Sharma resigned from the Haryana cabinet.
On 15 December 2006, the High Court ruled that Sharma was guilty based on existing evidence, and also criticised the trial judge, S. L. Bhayana.
The judgement said that the lower court had been lax in not considering the testimony of witnesses such as Bina Ramani and Deepak Bhojwani, stating regarding the treatment of the latter's evidence that
With very great respect to the learned judge [Bhayana], we point out that this manner of testing the credibility of the witness is hardly a rule of appreciation of evidence. ... Obviously, this reflects total lack of application of mind and suggests a hasty approach towards securing a particular end, namely the acquittal."
In particular, the key witness Munshi came in for serious criticism. The judgement says, of his earlier repudiation of the First Information Report that "[Munshi] is now claiming that the said statement was recorded in Hindi while he had narrated the whole story in English as he did not know Hindi at all ... We do not find this explanation of Munshi to be convincing." Regarding Munshi's testimony that two guns were involved, the judgement says: "In court he has taken a somersault and came out with a version that there were two gentlemen at the bar counter. ... [W]e have no manner of doubt that on this aspect he is telling a complete lie."
On 20 December 2006, Sharma was punished with a sentence of life imprisonment and a fine. The other accused, Yadav and Gill, were fined and given four years' rigorous imprisonment. A plea for Sharma to be sentenced to death was rejected on the grounds that the murder, although intentional, was not premeditated and Sharma was not considered to be a threat to society.
Sharma's lawyer announced that the decision would be appealed in Supreme Court because the judgement was wrong in holding Bina Ramani to be a witness.
Parole for Sharma, 2009
On 24 September 2009, the government in Delhi paroled Sharma for a 30 day period so that he could attend to some matters relating to his sick mother and the family business. The parole was extended by further 30 days, during which he was seen to be partying in a night-club and his mother undertook public functions. Sharma returned himself to Tihar Jail on 10 November 2009, two weeks before his parole expired.
Sharma was granted a limited parole from 28 December 2013 to 5 January 2014. This was to allow him to sit for a masters degree examinations in Delhi.
Supreme Court confirmation of sentences
On 19 April 2010, the Supreme Court of India approved the sentences and said that
The evidence regarding the actual incident, the testimonies of witnesses, the evidence connecting the vehicles and cartridges to the accused — Manu Sharma, as well as his conduct after the incident prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The High Court has analysed all the evidence and arrived at the correct conclusion.
Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani, who represented Sharma in the Supreme Court, assailed the High Court verdict, alleging that the media had prejudged the issue and conducted a campaign to vilify his client. 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 High Court.
In May 2013, Delhi High Court ordered prosecution of Bollywood actor Shayan Munshi and a ballistic expert, P. S. Manocha, for turning hostile. The court cleared a further 17 people whose allegedly hostile position was under review. Ten other people had been discharged from claims of perjury in earlier hearings and three had died since the original trial.
- Murder of a Model India Today, 17 May 1999.
- Manu Sharma, Vikas Yadav charged with Jessica Lal's murder Rediff.com, 3 August 1999.
- Bina Ramani held, let off. Husband, daughter also in Excise net The Tribune, 9 May 1999.
- Former minister's family absconding after model's murder Rediff.com, 3 May 1999.
- Model's murderer continues to elude dragnet Rediff.com, 3 May 1999.
- Vikas Yadav surrenders, yet escapes arrest Rediff.com, 19 May 1999.
- Vikas Yadav is on the run again Rediff.com, 9 July 1999.
- Vikas Yadav granted bail in Jessica murder case Rediff.com, 21 May 2001.
- http://archives.digitaltoday.in/indiatoday/16111998/cover.html The Sleazy World of Romesh Sharma
- India campaign for murdered Delhi model BBC News, Delhi, 9 March 2006.
- "Shayan Munshi to face perjury charge". The Times of India. PTI. 18 February 2011. Retrieved 2011-11-15.
- All accused acquitted in Jessica Lal murder case The Hindu, Feb 22, 2006.
- Acquittal in Killing Unleashes Ire at India's Rich The New York Times 13 March 2006.
- Singh, Onkar. "Jessica case: Manu Sharma granted bail". Retrieved 2006-12-27.
- "Transcript of the news expose "Case Ke Kaatil", produced by Tehelka, and aired on STAR News (translation)". STAR News/Tehelka. 2006-09-26. Retrieved 2006-10-07.
- "Key witness in Jessica case dubbed liar by HC". Rediff. PTI. 19 December 2006. Retrieved 2011-11-30.
- Singh, Sanghita (20 December 2006). "Manu Sharma gets life term". Mumbai: DNA. Retrieved 2006-12-27.
- "Manu Sharma out on 30-day parole". The Times Of India. 25 September 2009.
- "Manu Sharma surrenders, returns to Tihar Jail". India: Yahoo News. 10 November 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-11-13.
- "Jessica Lal murder case: Manu Sharma gets nine-day parole". The Hindu. Retrieved 2013-12-20.
- "Supreme Court confirms life term to Manu Sharma". The Hindu. 19 April 2010.
- "Jessica Lall murder: Actor Shayan Munshi, ballistic expert Manocha to face perjury trial". Indian Express. 22 May 2013. Archived from the original on 19 June 2013. Retrieved 22 May 2013.