Firmly embedded in the Sheena murder story is the saga of a breakdown of the criminal investigation and justice delivery system. With media keen to play judge, jury and executioner, there’s little hope for a fair trial
By Somasekhar Sundaresan
One could not have thought of a more bizarre but riveting reality television story. Every consumer and supplier of news is obsessed with it. A shoddy police system is trying to take credit instead of addressing what is evidently a failure on multiple levels. Perhaps because the prime accused is a former media owner, the rest of the media is overzealously crowing over the fallen foe.
The allegation is that a woman planned and executed her daughter’s murder with the help of a former husband and driver, taking her current husband for a ride, whose son was the murder victim’s lover. A son too is alleged to have been the subject of an attempted murder, and he is on television calling for his mother’s blood. A man in a mask claims to be the father of the murder victim, calling for stringent punishment for his former lover. The stepson alleges that he tried to make police complaints about his missing lover but was frustrated and got reconciled to being without his lover. Remains of the murdered corpse are alleged to have been found in some remote place.
Locals are reported to have said that burial of suspect human remains is a usual occurrence in their area. The police in the region do not have records. Suddenly, some fancy technology to “recreate” the face of the victim from the remains is talked about. The face they would seek to recreate is now nationally well-known and is on the front pages of newspapers every day. Yet, this is talked about as credible build-up of evidence. The accused is castigated in the media for “giving the police a tough time” for refusing to confess. A “sting operation” by the police is reported – placing the three accused in the same room, secretly listening in on their conversation. Helpfully, the police “refuse comment” in the reports that carry news of the alleged blow-by-blow account of this allegedly confessional and incriminating conversation. News agencies proudly claim to have copies of police applications for remand of the accused.
Firmly embedded in this bizarre story is the story of the breakdown of the criminal investigation and justice delivery system. With such wide-ranging public coverage of every allegation from every quarter, some painfully in contradiction with others, one can hardly expect a free and fair trial. Despite the breakdown of the policing system, leading to a three-year delay in even discovering the alleged murder, it would be a complete surprise if the trial leads to acquittal of the accused. In the unlikely event of acquittal, society would turn against the justice system itself. Talking heads on prime time television would spew venom on the breakdown of justice. A movie may be made titled Nobody killed Sheena. In short, the current social dictum is: if someone has allegedly been killed, whoever is accused of the murder must surely be punished.
The media coverage is reminiscent of the coverage of the notorious murder of one Prem Ahuja by KM Nanavati, a decorated militaryman in the 1950s. Society got divided into the Sindhi camp (supporting the prosecution) and the Parsi camp (supporting the accused), and the trial was conducted by the media, with Parsi-owned Blitz magazine firmly supporting the Parsi cause. The accused was acquitted and the media coverage played a role in a mistrial being declared.
In 2012, a Supreme Court constitutional bench headed by Chief Justice SH Kapadia refrained from issuing blanket guidelines on gagging the press, but laid down the principle that one may indeed ask a court to issue a writ postponing reporting of court proceedings. The court ruled that a temporary ban on publication of court proceedings may be necessary to maintain a balance between freedom of speech and the need to protect against prejudice to the administration of justice. Critics assailed it as a development that would give rise to a gagging culture. Far from it, the fear of a media backlash and the consequential adverse scrutiny makes one shudder to think of seeking a gag order. Little wonder that the only two known beneficiaries of gag orders since then are a senior counsel and a retired judge.
Meanwhile, trials in the kangaroo courts of television studios and front pages continue unabated. Everybody loves a murder.
This article was published in the Mumbai Mirror and allied publications on September 4, 2015