By: TIM SULLIVAN (Thu, Mar/09/2006).
NEW DELHI - The facts of the case appeared
straightforward: On a hot summer night in 1999, a
young woman tending bar in an upscale New Delhi
restaurant refused to serve a drunk patron. It was
about 2 a.m. Closing time, she told him, had passed.
So he shot her in the head.
Dozens of people witnessed the killing of Jessica
Lall, bullet casings were recovered, and a suspect
was quickly identified.
But that suspect, 24-year-old Manu Sharma, was the
son of a powerful and wealthy politician with
interests in sugar mills. He was only a few years
out of Mayo College, one of India's most elite
boarding schools. Among the friends with him that
night were a coterie of the young, the rich and the
well-connected. He and his friends, who were accused
of helping cover up the crime, insisted they were
The victim, a model who moved on the fringes of New
Delhi society, had few such connections.
For six years, the case moved through the courts -
fairly speedy for a legal system hobbled by
corruption and a maze-like bureaucracy. And few were
surprised when the verdict was announced Feb. 21 and
all nine of the accused were acquitted.
What surprised India was its own reaction:
Protesters took to the streets, holding candlelight
vigils and waving signs calling for justice;
newspapers have kept the story on the front page day
after day; officials from the president to the
capital's police chief have called for a review of
In a country that had all but resigned itself to its
barely functioning legal system, a backlash was born.
"I had virtually given up on the case, but the
aftermath has surprised me most of all," Sabrina
Lall, the victim's sister, said in an interview. "One
can feel somewhat hopeful now that some good will
come out of all this."
On Monday, a sweeping police complaint was filed
alleging investigators had suppressed evidence and
witnesses had given false testimony as part of a
criminal conspiracy to protect the accused men.
While no one was named in the complaint, police
officials insist new trials are very possible.
"We will bring out the truth," New Delhi police
chief K.K. Paul told reporters.
But truth has been a rarity in the Lall
investigation, and many wonder if the uproar over
this case - with its beautiful, middle-class victim,
cast of witnesses out of the gossip pages and a
crime scene in a refurbished mansion - can bring
change to an exhausted legal system where the poor
suffer more than anyone.
India's courts are so slow that cases can take
decades to resolve, bribery is often openly demanded
and the powerful seldom face prosecution.
Illustrating that more than anything else are the
dozens of members of the national Parliament, and
hundreds of state legislators, who stand accused of
crimes ranging from tax evasion to murder.
For the poor, the situation is far different. Last
month, a 70-year-old villager was released from
prison after serving 38 years without trial. The
police had lost his files, and he'd been simply
"People have started feeling that criminal trials
are like a cobweb where small flies are getting
caught and big people are dashing through," the
Indian Supreme Court said in a ruling this week on
Many who work in the courts agree.
"Those who run this country, the ruling
establishment, are not particularly bothered by the
collapse of the justice system," said Prashant
Bhushan, a prominent lawyer. "It is the common
people in this country who are being hurt."
The Jessica Lall case, critics say, is proof of how
money and power are the real legal leverage.
After Lall's killing, one key witness recanted his
testimony and, according to relatives, suddenly
became wealthy. Another witness disavowed his
initial testimony, saying it had been transcribed by
the police into Hindi, a language he insisted he
barely spoke. He is now an actor in Hindi movies.
Police forensic investigators offered up
contradictory reports about whether one or two guns
had been fired. The socialite family who owned the
restaurant, set in a quiet courtyard behind what was
once a summer retreat for British colonialists,
allegedly had the crime scene cleaned up before the
investigation was completed.
The problems had long been clear.
"There has obviously been a conspiracy between the
accused and certain officials," Paul - then a deputy
police commissioner - said in a 2001 report on the
But the case trundled on until the acquittals.
Bhushan laughs when asked if he has hope for serious
Those "who are in power, they don't have any
interest in reforming it. They are the beneficiaries."