New Delhi, Oct. 17: Under a cloud since the Jessica Lal murder acquittals in February, the country’s system of justice today seemed to pass a test of public faith with a conviction in the Priyadarshini Mattoo case.
A decade after the Delhi University student was raped and murdered at her home, and seven years after the accused had walked free from the trial court, Delhi High Court found Santosh Kumar Singh guilty of both crimes.
On December 3, 1999, additional sessions judge G.P. Thareja had been unable to hide his feelings as he acquitted Santosh — son of the man then next in line to be Delhi police chief — for lack of evidence.
“I know he is guilty but my hands are tied. I can only go by the evidence,” the now-retired judge had said, slamming the CBI handling of the case.
It was on the same set of evidence that Justices R.S. Sodhi and P.K. Bhasin today set aside the acquittal, calling it a “perverse” verdict that had shocked the “collective conscience of the public and the judiciary”.
The judges were in no doubt what their decision meant. Along with the Jessica and Nitish Katara murders —where, too, well-connected accused had for a time seemed able to evade justice — this case was being widely seen as a test for the judiciary.
“There is no doubt this verdict is monumental, because it sends the message loud and clear that justice is the same for all. It may be delayed, and concerns may arise about its fairness, but it eventually delivers a fair verdict — always,” Justice Bhasin said.
The conviction was based on DNA tests confirming rape and circumstantial evidence. Santosh, a lawyer, faces either a life term or the death penalty.
Arguments on the sentence will be heard on October 30, after which Santosh may appeal to the Supreme Court.
Priyadarshini, a 30-year-old law student, had complained to police five times that Santosh was following and harassing her. When she was killed on January 23, 1996, she had police security assigned to her.
During the trial, the CBI declared her household help — a prime witness — “untraceable” only for a newspaper to publish his address.
The case again hit the headlines after the mass acquittals in the Jessica case raised an outcry. Suddenly, the lone battle of Chamanlal Mattoo, Priyadarshini’s 70-year-old father, had turned into a national campaign, with hundreds walking with candles to India Gate demanding justice for Priyadarshini and Jessica.
Jessica’s sister Sabrina was in the courtroom today. After the verdict, Chamanlal thanked the media.