Effect of media on court trials

The media plays a significant role during court trials. Reporters give their own opinions while reporting the judgements and they ask what the pubic thinks of the decisions taken by the court. In a country which guarantees its citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression, as well as freedom of press, it is the right of the public to express their views on the decisions of the court. 

The court is headed by a judge who is ultimately human. As the famous proverb goes, “to err is human”, which means that it is normal to make mistakes. Hence, judges may make some mistakes while giving judgements. Earlier, the burden of making a decision did not wholly rely upon the judge alone. India used to follow the jury system until it was abolished by the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973. 

The last case of Indian Jury System

The case which attracted a lot of media attention such that it influenced the jury system was K.M. Nanavati v State of Maharashtra. The case is briefly discussed below. 

  • K M Nanavati was a naval officer who went frequently out of Bombay due to  his work, leaving his wife Sylvia and three children at home. Prem Ahuja, a common friend of the Nanavatis, had an illicit affair with Sylvia. On April 27, 1959, Sylvia confessed of this affair with Ahuja to Nanavati.
  • Enraged at this, Nanavati went to the ship and took a gun and six bullets on the pretext that he was going to travel alone at night. He dropped off his wife and children at the cinema theatre and went to Prem Abuja’s house and shot him and he dropped dead. 
  • After this, Nanavati went and surrendered himself to the police. At the court, he claimed that he had actually taken the gun to kill himself but Sylvia changed his mind. He went to Ahuja’s house and he provoked him and during the scuffle he accidentally shot Ahuja. 
  • The media was very influential and the jury voted Nanavati as not guilty. However the Supreme Court was not impressed at this decision and sentenced him to jail. After serving 3 years in jail, the then Governor Vijay Lakshmi Pandit pardoned Nanavati.

After this case, the jury system was abolished in India. Here are some cases that would have a heavy media coverage which in turn would heavily influence the jury if the jury system was still prevalent in India.

  • Priyadarshini Mattoo Case : Priyadarshini Mattoo, a 25 year old law student was found raped and murdered at her house on 23 January, 1996. It was when she was in law college in Delhi that Santosh Singh, the son of an IPS, started stalking her and making indecent proposals to her. It got really messy that her parents had to complain to the police. On 23 January, 1996 Santosh entered Priyadarshini’s apartment and he was seen by witnesses. They saw him carrying a helmet with a visor. But after the murder, when he was thoroughly searched because the victim’s mother highly suspected him, police found that his helmet’s visor was broken and there were shards of broken visor found next to her body.                                             
  • The case was transferred to CBI and surprisingly, Santosh was acquitted and the judge blamed CBI for shoddy investigation. The CBI appealed in Delhi High Court and after trial, Santosh Singh was convicted for rape and murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo. The High Court gave him a death sentence. Santosh Singh approached the Supreme Court and the death sentence was changed to life imprisonment. 
  • Jessica Lall Case: On April 29, 1999, at around 2 a.m., Manu Sharma came into a bar in which Jessica Lall was working as a bartender. He was already drunk and asked her for more liquor. However she refused to serve him saying that the party was over. On hearing this rejection, Manu Sharma took out a gun and fired two shots; one of them hit the ceiling and the other hit Jessica, killing her. While the trial was going on, several prosecution witnesses turned hostile one by one. This was probably due to the pressure by Manu Sharma’s father who was an influential politician.        There were many allegations that Venod Sharma, Manu Sharma’s bribed the witnesses. Manu Sharma was acquitted by a trial court in February 2006. In December 2006, the Delhi High Court convicted Manu, awarding him life imprisonment. However, he was released in June 2020, after serving 14 years, for good conduct during imprisonment. 
  • Sushant Singh Rajput Case: On June 14, 2020, Sushant Singh Rajput was found hanging from the ceiling fan in his bedroom of his apartment in Mumbai. His father, who lives in Bihar filed an FIR at Patna. He alleged that Sushant’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty and her brother abetted him to commit suicide and she had also transferred huge amounts of money from his bank account to hers.  The Enforcement Directorate requested the Narcotics Control Bureau to join them and the NCB arrested Rhea and her brother after finding financial evidence that Rhea and Sushant had been in possession of narcotic drugs, especially cannabis. The case was transferred to CBI and no substantial proof has been gathered to suggest that the death of Sushant Singh Rajput was murder. His psychologists confirm that he was going under medication and was having a tough time. The decision of the case is yet to come. 

Role of media 

In all these cases, the media played a supporting but very important role. It was through the media that these cases came to be known by the common man. If the news channels and newspapers had not covered these incidents, the right judgement would not be declared. However, if the jury system was still continued in India even after the Nanavati case, the members of the jury could be convinced to go for the opposite of what they were originally going to decide. This has been shown in films like The Trial of the Chicago 7, Rustom, 12 Angry Men and A Time To Kill. 

Although the jury system adds sentimental value because it involved the common townsfolk and allows them to give an opinion during the trial, the fact that they are prone to change their verdict based on whatever information the media feeds them or what majority of the public says cannot be ignored. It cannot be assumed that judges make the right decisions all the time but when compared with the jury system, the bench system is definitely more impartial. Justice should be fair and impartial and this is the reason why the statue of The Lady Justice has a blindfold on her eyes. 

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