The curtains have finally come down in the Jessica Lal murder case, with the Supreme Court confirming the award of life imprisonment to Manu Sharma. It was 11 years ago that the son of a former Union Minister pulled the trigger on Lal in front of many eyewitnesses. This was after she refused to serve him a drink at a fashionable Delhi watering hole where she worked as a celebrity barmaid. Justice in what seemed like an open and shut case came close to being derailed when a sessions court acquitted all nine accused. This was because a string of witnesses turned hostile and the murderer was aided by a shoddy investigation (for instance, the shocking failure to recover the gun used to shoot Jessica) and a prosecution case riddled with holes. The news media and public-spirited citizens played a key role in protesting against this gross miscarriage of justice, exposing the nature of the investigation and revealing other embarrassing details related to the case. This sustained campaign eventually led the Delhi High Court to take suo motu cognisance of the acquittal and reopen the case after the police filed an appeal against the session court's judgment.
In pronouncing Manu Sharma guilty, the Delhi High Court placed considerable weight on the testimonies of the bar-cum-restaurant owner Bina Ramani and her family, as well as some of her patrons, all of whom were present when the shooting took place. The Supreme Court has done likewise, determining that the entire chain of circumstances, including Manu Sharma's behaviour following the incident, led to only one inference — the guilt of the accused. The two-member Bench had some strong words for what it saw as a ‘trial by media,' pointing out that unnecessary controversies were created by some reports that had “the effect of interfering with the administration of justice.” There is certainly a worrying tendency in the media to indulge in sensationalism and fanciful speculation in high-profile criminal cases. The disgraceful way in which the media reported the Aarushi murder case is fresh in memory; in the same way, there can be no defence for exaggerated or false reports on the shooting of Jessica Lal. But it is also important to acknowledge that justice was rendered thanks to the intense, even aggressive, media scrutiny over a brutal killing that shocked the conscience of the nation. While the judiciary deserves to be praised for its capacity for self-correction, a section of the broadcast and print media deserves a pat on the back for fighting for justice in the Jessica Lal case and for helping prevent it from being thwarted by those who wield power and influence.