Clumsy cops, yo-yoing witnesses, poor prosecution — shame after tragedy
If the pointblank shooting down of Jessica Lall at a fashionable watering hole in New Delhi in April of 1999 stunned the nation, the exoneration of all the accused in the case seven years later by a Delhi sessions court was hardly less so. If the crime was evidence of depraved social behaviour, the verdict was evidence that India’s criminal justice system suffered from serious structural inadequacies. If a high-profile case in the heart of the capital can be allowed to collapse in this manner, there can be no hope of justice being rendered to ordinary people living in far-flung corners. The public incredulity that greeted this verdict should not just be a momentary spark of outrage. It should translate into a sustained, serious campaign to reform our criminal justice system.
Jessica Lall’s case crumbled at every stage in its unfortunate trajectory. The police did not even take the elementary precaution of protecting valuable evidence. A joint commissioner, who was at the scene of murder, had to be relieved of his post for failing to register that the bar was unlicensed. As for key witnesses, they chose to turn hostile. What caused these people to retract the initial statements they had made to the police will perhaps never be known and here we confront one of the great anomalies in our criminal justice system. The witness, despite being central to the delivery of justice, emerges as the weakest link in the system, vulnerable to both intimidation and inducement. The acquittal by a trial court in Gujarat of all the 21 accused in the Best Bakery case, after 37 of 43 witnesses had turned hostile, caused the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to approach the Supreme Court for a retrial. It argued that a fair trial was a constitutional imperative and whenever a criminal goes unpunished, it is society that suffers.
The NHRC’s argument is equally relevant to the Jessica Lall case. We need to ensure that not just the witness, but the evidence of the witness, is protected. This demands putting in place a functioning witness protection regime, and may also require that the recording of police statements in cases that invite life imprisonment/capital punishment be made before a magistrate, so that they are invested with a degree of individual responsibility. A process that ends up punishing, not the perpetrators of the crime but the victims, cannot be dignified by being termed as “just”. After a tragedy, we have the shame to deal with.
Indian Express Edits, Thursday, February 23, 2006