The case of Manu Sharma v. The State (NCT of Delhi), which is also one of the cases known as the “Jessica Lal murder case”, was the first among many which brought about nationwide discontent amongst its people after the murder of a Delhi based model named Jessica Lal. All of the hearings and the appeals after the initial trial gained a lot of importance in the form of a public audience due to wide media coverage and the entire country showed solidarity with the deceased victim in the form of candle marches and protests, and for the first time on such a large scale.
Equivalent Citation : (2010) 6 SCC 1
What happened during the trials in the Jessica Lal Murder Case, was widely contested by the appellant’s (Manu Sharma’s) learned senior counsel in court, Mr Ram Jethmalani. He acknowledged the fact that the media had played a significant role in Manu Sharma’s conviction and that that had impinged on his client’s right to a free and fair trial. This urged the court to acknowledge the same, as every person is guaranteed the right to a free and fair trial under the Indian Constitution  and then laid in front of the court the issues which gave rise to the cause of this appeal. These issues, the verdict of the court, its interpretation and its repercussions will be discussed in this article.
Facts of the case
In the early hours of the 30th of April, 1999, at about 2 a.m. a few people entered a party at the “Tamarind Cafe” in Qutub Colonnade and demanded drinks to be served to them. The bar was being tended to by a 34 year old model, Jessica Lal, and a Shyan Munshi. In the room with them were also present a waiter, the manager of the cafe and the owner/owner’s daughter, Malini Ramani who was also a good friend of Jessica Lal. Manu Sharma, along with his friends demanded drinks from Jessica Lal even after repeatedly being told that drinks were not available due to the fact that the bar had already been closed and the last call had already been served, besides the fact that they were out of liquor. Angered by Jessica’s refusal to serve him alcohol, Manu Sharma took out his pistol and then first shot at the ceiling and then shot right next to Jessica’s left eye, causing her to fall to the ground. This was when the bar’s owner, Beena Ramani questioned Manu Sharma about his actions and why he did what he did, but he answered none and fled from the scene of crime. Then Jessica was rushed to the hospital and upon being transferred to Apollo hospital, she was declared dead early in the morning of 30th April, 1999.
The police immediately began a formal inquiry into the matter, starting with the crime scene where the accused had left his car. The police also took down Shyan Munshi’s statement and lodged an FIR, and took the two cartridges that the bullets had left behind, as evidence. Meanwhile, Jessica’s body was sent to AIIMS for forensic analysis. The police then endeavoured to collect as many statements as they could from potential witnesses, who were present at the party on the night on which Jessica Lal was killed.
In the initial trial by the Sessions Court, the court had given orders to acquit the accused parties on the basis of the witness’ testimonies as well as the lack of evidence. This order was challenged in the high court later, on the pretext that evidence had been tampered with during the first trial and that several of the prosecution witnesses had become hostile and thus Jessica Lal had not gotten the justice that she deserved. The appeal was allowed and meanwhile, several sting operations such as those by Tehelka  along with NDTV  were conducted, in an attempt to uncover the truth that the witnesses could have, but chose not to present. On account of such new circumstances, the court sentenced the accused to a term of life imprisonment under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and levied a fine of INR 50,000 along with charges under S. 120B and a fine of INR 2000; he was also charged under the Arms Act . This verdict was challenged by the appellant/accused in the Supreme Court of India and the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the High Court.
In the duration of the trial in the SC, the learned senior counsel for the appellant, Mr. Ram Jethmalani, brought up three main issues:
1) If the prosecution had established its case beyond reasonable doubt against the three accused;
2) whether the trial court was justified in acquitting the three accused; and lastly
3) whether the High Court was just and correct in reversing the verdict of the Sessions Court; however, the fact that the accused had been charged with the charges that were in fact levied upon them, was not disputed .
A fourth issue which can be raised while studying this case is whether the crime committed here amounted to murder, or was this a case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
In understanding the pertinent issues of this case, it is imperative to study what powers the High Court and the Sessions Court had in giving the verdict that they did. The rule of precedent applies when a higher competent court produces an order or a verdict regarding a case which has been challenged.
The relevant sections which are required to be understood with regards to this analysis would be Sections 300, 302 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code.
Mr. Jethmalani built his case against the prosecution almost entirely relying upon the question of the amount of authority that the High Court and the Sessions Court had, in decision making when it came to deciding the fate of his client/s. He also relied upon the disputed issue that the High Court’s judgement may have been coloured by pressure by the media and the fact that the High Court did not consider all of the witness testimony given prior to the High Court appeal. His contention was that the HC ought to have taken into consideration the previous testimonies, which were given during the initial trial in the sessions court due to which Manu Sharma had been acquitted. The rationale behind the Supreme Court’s decision here, when it declared that the prosecution had proved its case against all three accused wasn’t that the witnesses had turned hostile in the first trial, i.e. that the witnesses had given false or testimony against the prosecution such that it negatively impacted the prosecution’s case, but the fact that even though the prosecution’s case was weakened due to such testimony earlier, the fact that an FIR had been filed by Shyan Munshi, and others’ statements prior to the initial trial, such as those of the waiter, the manager, Ms. Malini Ramani, Mrs. Beena Ramani and others, more than substantiated the fact that all the accused were present at the scene of the crime on the day of the unfortunate incident.
What Mr. Jethmalani also contested was the fact that the court changed its stance with regards to the accused and revaluated evidence which had already been ‘correctly’ evaluated in the interim of the initial trial. A higher court, and in this case the High Court, the SC decided that, has the power to reverse a verdict when enough evidence and facts have come to light, so as to facilitate justice. Logically, the entire purpose of an appeal would be to look at the facts once again, in conjunction with either newer facts, or previous ones which had not already been mentioned in court, in order to ensure that each party, especially the party appealing, has had a fair chance to put across its points and make its case. In circumstances such as these, where the court is required to decide the punishment for the guilty, if the evidence is not re-evaluated, then an unfair inquiry stands in the way of justice. Besides, on investigating, it had been found that crucial evidence had been tampered with in Jessica Lal’s case during the sessions court trial. The two cartridges which had been shot from the same pistol had been portrayed to have been shot from two separate pistols in the first trial. Thus, if it had not been emphasized that this crucial evidence be evaluated again, the purpose of the appeal would have been very limited towards actual justice. Thus the High Court was within its authority to have had evidence be re-evaluated, as well as to have heard witness testimonies again & to have taken these into consideration. Thus, the SC also held the High Court’s judgement as valid, and correctly so.
Mr. Jethmalani also contested that the charges against Malini Ramani, Beena Ramani and George Malhiot were dropped very easily with a fine of just INR 200. The court reiterated the fact that the charges against the aforementioned were not relevant to the case at hand and were independent. Apart from which, the crime of which Manu Sharma was accused of was much graver than the charges against the Ramanis, therefore the two punishments become incomparable.
The last issue which one could draw from the case, with regards to the IPC is whether the crime committed was intended or not, and thus, by extension, the seriousness of the punishment. The most basic element in any crime is the presence of mens rea, or a ‘guilty mind’. If there is a lack of intention, then to decide whether an act or an omission is a crime becomes extremely difficult. It should be noted that at the Thursday night party at Tamarind Cafe, Manu Sharma was intoxicated with alcohol, voluntarily thus making him ineligible to make use of the exception of involuntary intoxication. The punishment for killing somebody in India is absolute, barring the provisions mentioned under the exceptions. Then Manu Sharma committed a culpable homicide under S. 299 of the Indian Penal Code according to which, “Whoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide.”  Manu Sharma may not have intended to kill Jessica Lal. However, the knowledge that shooting at or near a person can lead to a fatal injury, and by doing so he put Jessica Lal’s life in danger. This knowledge requisite made him liable for punishment under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. Besides, the accused’s action for fleeing the scene of crime and remaining hidden for a period of days was an indication of the presence on mens rea.
Manu Sharma’s actions could not be termed as “murder” as section 300 of the IPC which defines murder, has certain exceptions mentioned and if the actions do not fulfil such exceptions, only then can a crime be deemed as murder. In this case, the 4th exception which states that “Culpable homicide is not murder if it is committed without premeditation in a sudden fight in the heat of passion upon a sudden quarrel and without the offender having taken undue advantage or acted in a cruel or unusual manner.”  In this case, the fight was not premeditated; the accused had not planned on murdering the deceased. The fight between them was sudden and the crime committed in the heat of passion. Thus, the accused was sentenced for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, applying the exception mentioned here.
Jessica Lal’s murder portrayed a brutal failure of humanity, yet the only thing that kept her wellwishers going was the faith in law. Court appeals are such rays of hope for several who feel that they did not receive a fair hearing. The conduct in which an inquiry in such trials is held becomes very crucial as lives depend on it. The only thing that helps the citizens of this nation is their faith in the law and their belief that the law will serve justice to them. Thus fair trials such as in the case of Jessica Lal, must be conducted, without any bias, for the growth of the nation.
 The Constitution of India, art. 21.
 Tehelka Bureau, “Their political clout is so big… they can’t touch them”, Tehelka, 7 October 2006, available at http://old.tehelka.com/their-political-clout-is-so-big-they-cant-touch-them/ (last visited on 21 January 2021).
 NDTV, NDTV gets Manu Sharma’s taped confession, 2006, available at: https://www.ndtv.com/video/news/news/ndtv-gets-manu-sharma-s-taped-confession-7893 .
 Sidhartha Vashisht @ Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi), (2010) 6 SCC 1: (2010) 2 SCC (cri) 1385.
 The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Act 45 of 1860), s. 299.
 The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Act 45 of 1860), s. 300.
BY MRINALINI MUKHERJEE | O P JINDAL GLOBAL UNIVERSITY