|COVER STORY: LAW|
Crime Sans Punishment
|By Shuchi Sinha|
What does it take to commit a crime in front of a roomful of witnesses and then walk away, unpunished? Gumption? Lack of an operative conscience? Actually, something more mundane. A good lawyer with an ability to manipulate a creaking criminal justice system. Plus cash, muscle power and a few political connections. At least, that’s what the number of high-profile, unresolved criminal cases involving Delhi’s rich and famous seem to indicate.
In the past few years, unnatural deaths and violent incidents have highlighted the sour side of the capital’s creamy layer. Natasha Singh’s death, coming barely a few weeks after the bizarre killing of Nitish Katara, and at a time when the prosecution in the Jessica Lall murder case is floundering, has heightened cynicism about the efficiency of our legal system. Street wisdom says, even if Natasha’s death isn’t suicide, nobody is going to jail for it.
What makes the criminal justice system so vulnerable to manipulation? Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley believes “the system is so lethargic that by the time the case comes to court the evidence is lost and the witnesses have turned hostile. Essentially it’s the criminals who are benefited”.
In the Katara case, while the accused, Vikas and Vishal Yadav, have confessed to the police that they killed the bureaucrat’s son, this confession amounts to little. Under Section 25 and 26 of the Indian Evidence Act, confessions made to a police officer while in police custody are not admissible as evidence in court. This is done with the admirable intent of discouraging forced statements and third degree methods of interrogation. The Uttar Pradesh Police suspect that the Yadavs will employ innovative means to avoid punishment.
When law student Priyadarshini Mattoo met with a macabre death in 1996, the obvious suspect was her obsessed stalker Santosh Singh, son of a senior police officer in Delhi. When he was arrested, Singh broke down and confessed to the crime, but here too the confession meant little. By the time the case came in for hearing in 1999, it was the prosecution that ended up in the dock. In his 450-page order, additional sessions judge G.P. Thareja highlighted how the clout that Singh’s father enjoyed had ensured that the investigators blatantly botched up the probe.
The prosecution in the Jessica Lall murder case collapsed because witnesses changed their statements in the court. Lall’s alleged killer Manu Sharma was granted bail this month. Almost a dozen people were present when Lall was shot in the temple at a party but when the court hearing began last year, four of the prosecution’s witnesses turned hostile. Senior criminal lawyer and secretary of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Ashok Arora, rues, “A person can lie in court without any social boycott, leave alone legal punishment. Perjury is a major problem.”
In the equally sensational BMW hit-and-run case, lone survivor and eyewitness Manoj Malik eventually stated in court that a truck, not a BMW car driven by Sanjeev Nanda, a retired admiral’s grandson, had killed five people. Apart from the lack of social ostracism, the problem with the current law on perjury is procedural. It is the judge presiding over a case who has to take note that the witness has made a false statement, then go and depose before another judge with the charge. Few judges have the time for it.
Defence lawyer Rebecca Mammen says, “It’s not just the rich and influential who manipulate the law. Officers of the state are at times dishonest in the means they use to get a conviction. They substitute good investigation with false evidence.” Public prosecutors too are ill-paid, tempting most talented lawyers to avoid prosecution and opt for defence.
Can things ever change? Perhaps. The Law Ministry is awaiting the recommendations of the Committee on Criminal Justice Reforms headed by Justice V.S. Malimath, former chief justice of the Kerala High Court. The recommendations could help improve the conviction rate in serious crimes from its present dismal level of 6.5 per cent.
One of the proposals says that the initial witness statements should be recorded in the presence of magistrates, automatically making it binding evidence, or video-taped to ensure they are voluntary and preventing a retraction by the witnesses. Another proposal states that public prosecutors should be trained and paid better so that they are on a par with the defence. Indeed, as the law minister says, “Crime, today, is a low risk, high-returns business. With a more than 90 per cent chance that one will not be convicted, it’s no wonder that youngsters don’t think twice before committing a crime.”