By ordering the prosecution of two witnesses who turned hostile in the sensational Jessica Lal murder case, the Delhi High Court seems to have paved the way for a much needed corrective in India’s criminal justice delivery system. Too often, during the course of a lengthy trial, prosecution witnesses begin to think it is easier and more convenient, and sometimes even more profitable, to lie under oath than to tell the truth. The 1999 Jessica Lal killing was supposed to be an open-and-shut case, a murder in full view of several guests at a crowded, high-profile party. But, in the ensuing trial, Manu Sharma, the man identified as the murderer, the son of a senior Congress politician, was acquitted with several witnesses going back on what they had initially told investigators. The course the case took was a reminder that justice could be subverted by the rich and the powerful, no matter what the evidence. It took intense public pressure, and a sustained campaign by rights activists, before the verdict was overturned by the Delhi High Court and Sharma sentenced to life imprisonment. But if the interests of justice were to be truly served, it was necessary for the court to proceed against those who had perjured themselves. Otherwise, witnesses would have continued to think nothing of going back on their own statements, contradicting themselves, and derailing the trial. Bollywood actor Shayan Munshi and ballistic expert P.S. Manocha, now charged with perjury, were important witnesses in the case who backtracked from their statements to the police during the trial.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the conviction rate in India in 2011 for murder was 38.5 per cent, and 26.4 per cent for rape. These figures are shockingly low. Alongside sloppy investigation and a fumbling prosecution, the tortuous processes of the criminal justice delivery system are also responsible for this situation. Witnesses, who often have little to gain or lose personally from the outcome of a case, see themselves as being penalised for their willingness to speak the truth. Even when they have a personal stake, witnesses often succumb to bribery or intimidation and turn hostile. Zaheera Shaikh, whose family members were burnt to death inside Vadodara’s Best Bakery during the 2002 Gujarat riots, went back and forth on her testimony. She was found guilty of perjury but in the case of Munshi and Manocha, the order to prosecute comes more than six years after the High Court itself said it suspected several witnesses of perjuring themselves. Perjury and the intimidation of witnesses will remain a problem as long as the courts don’t treat these crimes with the urgency and seriousness they deserve.