John Michael D'Cunha

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Jayant Sriram

October 22, 2014

Judges of character

By jailing heavyweight leaders, judges have sent a strong message to politicians facing charges

When J. Jayalalithaa arrived at Parappana Agrahara special court in Bangalore on September 26, she is said to have told her partymen that she would return in a couple of hours. Throughout a trial of 18 years, her legal team had assured her that proceedings could be delayed and there would be time for more adjournments. An hour later, she became the first serving chief minister to be imprisoned.

Special Judge John Michael D'Cunha was the fifth judge to deal with the disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa after the trial had moved to Karnataka in 2003. Though a significant part of the trial, including examination of witnesses and recording of the accused's statements, were completed, lawyers following the case point to his taking over the case in November 2013 as the most significant moment of the trial.

"When a case goes on for 18 years and several adjournments are filed, it's hard even for a good judge to build momentum," says a lawyer who was involved with the case. D'Cunha, however, took a stern approach, completing the examination of all defence witnesses in under a year and rebuking the defence for trying to prolong the trial and suppress facts. Two incidents stand out. When the new prosecutor G. Bhavani Singh did not turn up in court on two occasions, D'Cunha fined him Rs 60,000-the amount he was being paid by the state per appearance.

Needless to say, the prosecutor was present at all hearings thereafter. D'Cunha visited Chennai to inspect the valuables seized from Jaya's residence following a raid in 1996. 800 kg silver, 28 kg gold, 750 pairs of shoes, 10,500 saris, 91 watches were kept in an RBI vault in Chennai and after a personal inspection, D'Cunha ordered that they be transferred to Bangalore. He was acting on a plea from the DMK that if the court disposed of the case without inspecting the assets, it would cause further delay as the defence might raise objections about the final valuation.

D'Cunha has a track record of being tough on politicians. A magistrate's court in Hubli had issued 18 non-bailable arrest warrants for Uma Bharti, the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, from 2002 to 2004 in the 1994 Idgah Maidan case. She evaded all. The case related to violence that followed her attempt to hoist the national flag at the Idgah in defiance of prohibitory orders on Independence Day in 1994 and led to the death of six people in police firing. The court served a final warrant on August 3, 2004, following which Bharti approached the court of D'Cunha, then district judge of Hubli, seeking to quash the charges. He rejected the petition saying it had been time-barred by the laws of limitation.

D'Cunha joined the judiciary as a district judge in 2002, serving in the courts of Bellary, Dharwad and Bangalore Rural. He then served as Registrar (Vigilance) of the Karnataka High Court before being appointed to Jayalalithaa's case. "The appointment of D'Cunha was an important move by the Karnataka High Court and they probably picked him because registrars of vigilance usually have a very clean track record. It was clear from the start that there was no possibility of influencing him," says a lawyer involved with the case.

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