Legal Articles

Tale of Two Trials
March 22, 2022

I n October, the Supreme Court of India granted a sigh of relief to Santosh Kumar Singh, the convict in the much publicised Priyadarshini Mattoo rape and murder case. Ironically it was again in the month of October, 17 October 2006 to be precise, that the Delhi High Court after an unprecedented hearing over 42 continuous sittings, held the accused guilty and View Point Premlal Kuniyath sentenced him to death, reversing the trial court order of acquittal. But on 6 October 2010, Santosh Kumar Singh got relief, inviting another round of arguments, as the victim’s father decided to pursue legal efforts to seek ‘fate at par’. The trial took place around the same time when public outcry of foul play in the Jessica Lall murder trial was in the air, A Tale of Two Trials PRAVASI 13 NOVEMBER 2010 SABDAM where a high profile politician was allegedly involved. The collective efforts of the media in both these cases forced the judiciary to review trial court orders.

The media celebrated the fresh verdicts as their victory. Both the cases would have slipped into oblivion for failure on the part of police to investigate and produce credible evidence. But the media turned them around into landmark cases, where the judiciary had no other option but to succumb to the growing public outcry and reexamine the verdicts. Although the trial of Jessica Lall earned much publicity, the incident as such was not as gruesome as the Priyadarshini Mattoo case. Jessica Lall was the unfortunate victim of sudden rage when she could not provide alcohol as demanded by the accused, and was shot dead.

What made the killing sensational was the manner in which the accused tried to destroy evidences. It brought to light how vulnerable the system was, when influential people were involved. The trial court felt that the evidence produced before it was not strong, taking shelter in the defence lawyer’s theory that the fatal shot was fired from a pistol different from the one owned by the accused. However, the appellate court found the evidence sufficient enough to judge the accused guilty, and awarded life imprisonment, which was upheld by the Supreme Court on 19 April 2010 bringing to an end the controversial investigation and trial.

Priydarshini Mattoo on the other hand was a victim of lust. The main accused, the son of the then Inspector General of Police, was a law student in the same college where Priyadarshini studied. Being loyal to the boss, the other officers tried their best to save the accused, and succeeded in securing a verdict of acquittal from the trial court.

Unfortunately, it coincided the media hype on the acquittal in the Jessica Lall case. The consequent public outcry for justice forced a retrial, and a verdict in record time. Barring the scope for review on commuting the sentence, it appears to have put an end to both the high profile matters. But both the cases raised numerous questions on the efficacy of the judicial system. Would we always need a media outcry to get justice? Or is it the justice that we get that creates the media pressure? Trial by the media is considered an interference to the judiciary across the world.

In many countries where trial by a jury exists, the jury members do not get access to news items that can influence their minds. Contrary to such standards, Indian judiciary appears to have succumbed to the media pressure in both the trials. However, the PRAVASI SABDAM 14 NOVEMBER 2010 pronouncements of the Supreme Court have come as saving grace to the judiciary. Although sentiments of the victim’s father and his efforts to turn things around were well respected, the highest court restrained itself from being influenced by majority view. In commuting the death sentence, the apex court considered the age of the convict, antecedents, his present status, behaviour etc., based on a scientific approach rather than succumbing to the public outcry for retribution. For a moment, the legal fraternity was stunned to notice that collective media efforts can overturn tons of precedence to get a retrial and hearing on a day-to-day basis.

From the word go, judiciary came under pressure to reverse the judgment of the trial court. The death sentence awarded by the Delhi High court was considered immature by the legal fraternity. But since the judgment came as much required relief amidst cry from all corners, it was left to the higher court to decide at a later stage, than to bring in another round of trial through the media. Rightly so, the present confirmation of the Supreme Court in both the matters is seen as attempt to rescue judiciary from the clutches of media. The victim’s father appears to believe that his struggle for justice can end only after fetching death sentence to the accused, and hence appears determined to challenge the order by filing another review petition. This reduces the struggle for justice to a retributive sentiment. Public outcry and sentiments apart, judiciary must be left alone to arrive at judgements based on the evidences recorded before it.

Interpretation of the collected evidences must be left to the absolute discretion of the court. Such interpretations may well be open for review by the superior court, but the process itself must be above all challenges. Criminal offences, burden for booking the culprits, and measures to prevent its repetition rest squarely on the Government. Government on one side through its investigative machinery will have to arrest and find evidence against the accused.

On the other side it will have to prove through the courts that the collected evidences are sufficient enough to establish the alleged offence and award a sentence deemed fit and proper to the accused. This will ensure that no innocent is subjected to undue hardship in the name of enforcement of law. Being a double edged sword, it was always suspected that persons at the driving seat would take advantage of their position. Hence whenever there are incidents connecting high profile individuals, the media would make merry in such circumstances to swing the public mind either way. It is easy to spread negative publicity. Just a spark suggesting foul play would get wide publicity irrespective of its truth. It puts the judiciary in a fix, as if the judgment favoured the high profile accused. Fortunately or unfortunately in the referred cases, judiciary could find lacunae supporting the media activism.

However the interference gained apparent justification when the verdict of being guilty underwent a revision, and punishment from one extreme of acquittal to another extreme of death was awarded in a short span of time based on the same set of evidences. Thus media to some extent justified its role in rejuvenating the judicial system, but to what ultimate effect remains to be seen.

In the Priyadarshini Mattoo’s case, the way the media reported the Delhi High court verdict (‘Justice at last’!) hinted that the media already knew who the guilty was, and expected the judiciary to award the sentence accordingly. By corollary, had the judgment been different, the media perhaps would have termed it inadequate or even as no justice. Thus even the concept of the term justice falls open to differing interpretations by the media. PRAVASI 15 NOVEMBER 2010 SABDAM Cry for justice in the right sense should not be a cry for retribution. So long as an allegation is not proved in a court of law, it remains a mere allegation. Possibility of another interpretation of a given set of evidence does not necessarily mean a failure on the part of the judiciary, neither should it grant freedom to the media to call it as injustice. Justice as a term is the perception of an individual in a given case.

Now Santosh Singh feels justice has been done, whereas the victim’s father is preparing to challenge the Apex court order. Each side has an opinion based on the individual perceptions. Generally justice is not what one expects from the courts. On the contrary whatever that is received from the court is taken as justice. Rather than preconceiving justice and getting frustrated when the expected does not happen, believing that whatever is delivered by the court is justice would be the ideal way to respond. The system provides layers of opportunity to challenge a decision at different levels. Normally a civil case could be contested till the last decision by the Apex Court. Capacity of each party would decide how many layers one particular case would travel. But in a criminal case, even the burden of appeal against acquittal lies with the prosecution. Hence, even for no fault of theirs, the Government body receives Invest in Shree Krishna Seva Sangh Nagari Sahakari Patsanstha Maryadit Regn. No. PNA / PNA (3) / RSR / (CR) 2772 / 2003-04 29, Prestige Plaza, First Floor, Behind Foto Fast, Pune-Mumbai Road, Akurdi, Pune - 35. Ph: 46720102 Rate of Interest (2010) Period Rate 30-364 Days 7% For 1 Year 10-24 Months 10.5%-36 Months 117 Months & Above 12% Monthly Recuring 9?ily Collection 7% maximum criticism for not fetching a verdict as expected. Since media can influence potential voters, politicians appear scared of dealing with it. Nothing can be expected from a politician towards regulating the media with proper guidelines while dealing with such sensitive issues. Justice cannot be something that is available only to those who cry for it through the media. At the same time it cannot be something that is made available in line with public demand. Judiciary cannot be a democratic institution that delivers judgment as per majority view or public demand. With its verdict in the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, the Apex court has shown a scientific approach to restore its pride, and give hopes to the common man to trust the system