The long arm of the law stretched out once more in recent days, restoring the public's faith that justice may sometimes be delayed, but it is not denied if there is a widespread public outrage and demand from the system to deliver. Overturning an earlier acquittal in yet another sensational murder case, the Delhi High Court today convicted Manu Sharma, son of former union minister and Haryana Congressman Vinod Sharma (till recently, a minister in the Haryana Congress government) for killing model Jessica Lall, holding that the trial court's assessment of evidence was "immature and self-contradictory".
If somebody expected defence lawyer Ram Jethmalani to have pulled a technical rabbit out of an empty legal tricks box, they were sorely disappointed. Wrapping up the appeal in 25 hearings, a Bench comprising Justice R S Sodhi and Justice P K Bhasin, which had recently given death sentence to Santosh Kumar Singh in the Priyadarshni Mattoo case, was categorical:
"We have no hesitation in holding that Manu Sharma is guilty of an offence under Section 302 (murder) of IPC for having committed the murder of Jessica Lal ... As also under Section 27 of the Arms Act...In the totality of circumstances adduced from material on record, the judgement under challenge appears to us to be an immature assessment of material on record, which is self-contradictory, based on misreading of material and unsustainable".
Earlier, Ram Jethmalani, had created quite a stir by arguing in court that Jessica Lall was killed not by Manu Sharma but by a tall gentleman with red turban who had fired at her. Jethamlani had sensationally argued that Jessica had been killed not for refusing to serve a drink, as widely reported, but because she had challenged the killer's manhood, and that therefore the motive was not liquor but something else. Jessica Lall, a model, who was serving as a bartender at a crowded Tamarind Court, a high-profile celebrity hangout in New Delhi, was shot in the temple, at around 2 am, way back on 30 April 1999. Typically, when contacted, Jethmalani called the judgement "rubbish" and said, "We will appeal in the Supreme Court".
The Bench also convicted Vikas Yadav, an accused in the Nitish Katara murder case, and Amardeep Singh Gill alias Tony, an executive in a multinational firm, for conspiracy and destruction of evidence. The remaining accused—Shyam Sunder Sharma, a relative of former President S D Sharma; Harvinder Chopra, Chartered Accountant in Piccadilly Industries owned by Manu's father; Yograj Singh, father of cricketer Yuvraj Singh; Vikas Gill, who absconded after the appeal was filed; businessman Raja Chopra and Aloke Khanna, formerly an executive in an MNC with Tony Gill—were acquitted.
The court will hear arguments on the quantum of
sentence on Wednesday, which for
Manu Sharma could be a maximum of death penalty and a minimum of life imprisonment.
The 32-year-old model was allegedly shot
dead by Manu at the South Delhi's Tamarind Court restaurant and bar owned by
socialite Bina Ramani, whose testimony as key witness, was relied upon by the
The Bench ordered Tony Gill, who was present in the court room, to be taken into custody forthwith and said that Manu should be arrested from "wherever he is". It also issued a production warrant against Vikas Yadav, who is in judicial custody, to be present along with two other convicts on Wednesday when it will hear arguments on the quantum of sentence. Later, Manu Sharma surrendered to the police after his father, Congress leader Vinod Sharma, met his counsel Ram Jethmalani. Manu Sharma had been out on bail since April 12 , 2005 and had surrendered to the court in February this year but was later released after the shocking trial court acquittal for him along with all the nine accused. The trial court verdict had led to a massive public and media outcry, which forced the .Delhi Police to register a case against unknown persons for tampering of evidence and criminal conspiracy.
The High Court Bench, which termed the trial court's finding as "perverse", was swayed by the fact that Manu Sharma was never able to account for or produce his licensed gun and gave credence to the testimony of Bina Ramani, her daughter Malini and Canadian husband George Mailhot and said that "the two weapon theory was a concoction" which was introduced first time by the complainant Shyan Munshi, who had turned hostile in the case.
Bina Ramani (right) with her daughter Malini
Bina Ramani, a key witness in the case, had come under intense public scrutiny for first not having a permit to serve liquor in her restaurant where Jessica had been tending the bar, and also for having blood-stains washed off before the police arrived on the scene. She had also gone back on her statement in the court on the previous occasions, but it was different this time in High Court. She remained firm on her earlier stand and told the court that she was not only present at the scene of crime, but also saw Manu shoot Jessica. And she was singled out for special praise by the court: "We find (her) a reliable witness and in fact, the only brave person present in that party to muster courage to face the shooter," the Bench said. It also added, "While others, who claimed to be socialites, did not have the courage to raise a little finger to apprehend the culprit who she was chasing and shouting that he (Manu) was the person who had shot Jessica..."
Earlier too, during the hearing on the appeal filed by the Delhi Police challenging the acquittal of all nine accused including Manu Sharma, the Bench noted that Ramani's statements were sufficient to hold the accused guilty. "Bina Ramani had shown her guts by supporting the prosecution fully. She could have walked off in the right time like others," the court had said, referring to the three eye-witnesses including the complainant Shyan Munshi who had turned hostile in the case.
The Bench also commended the role of Ramani's Canada-born husband. "Even George Mailhot, being an old man, had tried to catch hold of the accused but no one else had gathered the guts to run after the accused, although hundred people were present in the restaurant".
In the end, it is what clinched the issue. "...Statement of Bina Ramani clearly shows that she had herself seen Siddharth Vasisht (Manu) shooting Jessica Lal as otherwise she had no reason to ask him why he had shot Jessica Lall," the court said holding that the prosecution itself had deliberately made a concession that she was not an eye witness.
"The trial court, however, instead of itself reading the evidence of Bina Ramani proceeded to wrongly record acceptance of this submission of the prosecutor," it said, adding that "this kind of approach of the trial court has caused grave miscarriage of justice".
The Bench held that statements of Ramani identifying Manu, Tony Gill, Aloke Khanna and Vikas Yadav "finds corroboration from the testimony of Malini Ramani and George Mailhot"
with inputs from agencies