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Analysing Premature Release on Good Behaviour through the lens of Jessica Lal Murder Case

Manvee Kumar Saidha, Nyayshastram

1. The Jessica Lal Murder Case

1.1.Background of the case

Jessica Lal, born on January 5, 1965, grew up to be a local actress and model in New Delhi. On April 29, 1999, the day of the incident, she had been hired to work as a celebrity bartender at the Tamarind Court restaurant in Mehrauli, a southwest district of Delhi, where she worked alongside a fellow actor - Shayan Munshi. It was a crowded socialite party, and there were reportedly around three hundred people at the restaurant that night. At around midnight the bar was exhausted of liquor and as per rules, concluded the sale of any drinks at 12:30 am. Despite this, a few people attempted to buy a few more drinks, and one among them was Manu Sharma, the son of Venod Sharma (a then a Congress Party minister), who approached the bar along with his two friends.

According to Ramani’s testimony, who was the owner of the restaurant, he overheard the conversation between Jessica Lal and Manu Sharma at about 2:00 am when he approached the bar to get hold of another drink. After being informed of the bar’s closure, he offered her a sum of rupees one thousand in exchange for the service of some liquor for him and his friends. Jessica refused to do so and according to some sources exchanged a rather provocative dialogue with him at the bar. This is when Manu Sharma procured his 0.22 calibre pistol, shot at the ceiling in the hope of intimidation and when this failed, at Jessica Lal. The bullet hit her head, near her temple, and despite being rushed to the hospital, she was pronounced dead a few hours later. Manu Sharma and his friends had fled the scene and were apprehended the week following this incident.

1.2.The Trial

The trial began in August of 1999. Though Manu Sharma initially confessed to the murder, the confession was later dismissed as evidence due to a procedural technicality committed by the police. The hearings saw a majority of the three hundred people deny their presence, either at the time of the incident or at the party itself, and four key witnesses turned hostile by retracting their perimammary statements. It was only on July 6, 2001, that a witness, namely Malini Ramani, identified Manu Sharma in the capacity of an eyewitness. Though two more persons identified Manu in court, the trial court was not satisfied on the ground of evidence, and Manu Sharma was acquitted on February 21, 2006.

Following the dissatisfaction of the acquittal, the Delhi Police filed an appeal in the High Court on March 13, 2006, and as of October 3 that year, the Hon’ble High Court began hearing this matter on appeal on a day-to-day basis. On December 20, 2006, the Delhi High Court awarded life imprisonment term to Manu Sharma with a fine of Rs. 50,000 and also sentences co-convicts Amardeep Singh Gill and Vikas Yadav to a four-year prison term with a fine of Rs. 3,000 each. Succeeding this set of events at the High Court, though the Hon’ble Supreme Court admitted Manu Sharma’s appeal in March 2007, it rejected his plea for bail. Finally, on April 19, 2010, the Supreme Court upheld Manu Sharma’s conviction leading to life term.

1.3.Manu Sharma’s Prison Journey

Manu Sharma was granted thirty-day parole on directions of Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor on September 24, 2009, on the grounds that he needed to attend to his ailing mother and the last rites of his grandmother[1]. Additionally, this was to allow him the time to take care of the family business that was allegedly suffering in his absence. However, it was later revealed that this parole was granted despite objection from the Delhi police[2]. A public uproar followed the grant of parole when media reports of him visiting night clubs surfaced and his involvement in a brawl with the Delhi Police Commissioner’s son. On confirmation of his violation of the parole standards, Manu Sharma returned to Tihar Jail on November 10 2009[3]. He was granted shorter paroles on various other occasions, such as for his appearance for his master's degree exams, attending his younger brother’s wedding, etc[4].

In consideration of his ethical conduct in jail, Manu Sharma was moved to an open prison system in November 2017, i.e. he was permitted to leave prison during the day and return in the evening. His case since came up for multiple reviews but was rejected[5]. It was in 2018 that Jessica Lal’s sister – Sabrina Lal issued a letter to welfare office of Tihar jail that, stating that she had no objection to the release of Manu Sharma as he had already spent 15 years in prison[6]. On May 11, 2020, the Delhi Sentence Review Board (SRB) had recommended a premature release of Manu Sharma. On approval from Anil Baijal, Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, he was released on June 01, 2020[7].

2. Indian Law on premature release on account of good behaviour

Indian law on early release for good behaviour, as will be the case in any country, stems from the recognition of a humanitarian approach towards prisoners. The attempt to envisage the integration of convicts into society when they are ready can be found the Indian Constitution and other specific legislation. For instance, every convict - male or female – who falls within the ambit of S 433 Criminal Procedure Code shall have the right to be considered for premature release if they have completed 14 years of actual imprisonment without being granted remissions, at the discretion of a Sentence Review Board (SRB). While the minimum completion required is fourteen years, in cases of heinous crimes, convicted prisoners are entitled to be considered after 20 years, including remissions. In case of male convicts that do not fall within the scope of this provision, undergoing the sentence of life imprisonment can be considered only after completion of ten years of actual imprisonment without remissions; and in case of female convicts that do not fall within the scope of this provision, undergoing the sentence of life imprisonment can be considered only after completion of seven years of actual imprisonment without remissions[8].

The procedure is to be initiated six months in advance of the date when the prisoner is due to become eligible for consideration of premature release, as per criteria which are laid down by the respective State Government. It includes consideration of the report by Superintendent of jail on social background, behaviour during incarceration, conduct during parole, offences committed in jail, if any, ailments etc., which is followed by a reference to the concerned Deputy Commissioner of Police/ Superintendent of Police. Inquiries and recommendations may be made by selected authorities, all of which should conclude one month prior to the meeting date. Such reports are forwarded to the Sentence Review Board, which is required to give due regard to guidelines of the State Government, Apex Court and High Court guidelines in the matter of premature release of prisoners, i.e. general principles of amnesty and precedents must be kept in mind. It has been expressly provided that rejection of premature release on any number of occasions does not form the basis for refusal of reconsideration. The critical memo of this order remains that the paramount consideration before the Sentence Review Board should be the welfare of the prisoner and society at large[9].

Despite the laid down procedure, the uncertainty surrounding its application remains dubious. However, where such doubts or ambiguities have arisen, the judiciary has stepped in for clarification rather than shunning the provision in itself. To exemplify, in the case of K.M. Nanavati v. State of Bombay[10] , the Supreme Court stated that, a pardon is one of the many prerogatives which have been recognised since time immemorial as being vested in the sovereign, wherever the sovereignty may lie. Further, in the case of State of Haryana v. Mohinder Singh[11], the Court held that power of remission could not be exercised arbitrarily, the decision must be well informed, reasonable and fair to all concerned. Pertaining to guidelines, the Supreme Court in the case of Laxman Naskar (Life Convict) v. State of Bengal & Anr[12], laid down specific points on which reports are to be called upon to base the consideration on premature release; such as:

1. Whether the offence is an individual act of crime without affecting society at large.

2. Whether there is any fruitful purpose of confining of this convict anymore.

3. Whether there is any chance of future reoccurrence of committing a crime.

4. Whether the convict has lost his potentiality in committing a crime.

5. The socio-economic condition of the convict’s family.

Thus, though in a cautious and calculated manner, the provision of premature release of convicts is meant to aid the internal growth of society. Withdrawing convicts from society, i.e. keeping them in prisons is merely a temporary and expensive solution. The premature release allows room for a convict to re-live in a society, in a guided and corrected manner, where he or she has come to acknowledge their actions.

[1] Esha Roy, Parole’s ins and outs: to perform ritual for late grandmother, attend to aged mother, The Indian Express (11/11/2009), available at http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/paroles-ins-and-outs-to-perform-ritual-for/539887 , last seen on 05/06/2020. [2] Manu Sharma partying hard, yet CM defends parole, Times of India (10/11/2009), available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Manu-Sharma-partying-hard-yet-CM-defends-parole/articleshow/5213730.cms?referral=PM , last seen on 05/06/2020. [3] Paroled, reveller Manu Sharma to be out again, Hindustan Times (16/11/2011), available at https://archive.is/20130125075256/http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/NewDelhi/Manu-Sharma-granted-5-day-parole/Article1-769854.aspx#selection-2439.0-2439.45 , last seen on 05/06/2020. [4] Jessica Lal murder case: Manu Sharma gets nine-day parole, The Hindu (31/07/2016), available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/jessica-lal-murder-case-manu-sharma-gets-nineday-parole/article5473878.ece , last seen on 05/06/2020. [5] Explained: As Manu Sharma is released, a look-back at the Jessica Lal murder case, The Indian Express (02/06/ 2020), available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/manu-sharma-is-released-jessica-lall-murder-case-6439462/ , last seen on 05/06/2020. [6] 19 years of Jessica Lal murder case: A look back, The Indian Express (30/04/ 2018), available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/19-years-of-jessica-lall-murder-case-a-look-back/ , last seen on 05/06/2020. [7] Kumar Kunal, Jessica Lal killer Manu Sharma walks out of jail after Delhi LG approves release, India Today (02/06/ 2020), available at https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/jessica-lal-murder-manu-sharma-released-tihar-jail-delhi-lg-1684691-2020-06-02 , last seen on 05/06/2020. [8] Premature Release Order, Government of Delhi, http://web.delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/f6ddac00469db1fabec4fe7d994b04ce/Regulations+regarding+premature+release.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&lmod=1620617118&CACHEID=f6ddac00469db1fabec4fe7d994b04ce , last seen on 05/06/2020. [9] Id. [10] 1961 AIR 112. [11] Criminal Appeal No. 141 to 147 of 2000 [12] Writ Petition (Crl.) Nos. 181 of 1999


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