New Delhi: The Bombay High Court on Thursday gave a huge relief to Bollywood actor Salman Khan in the infamous 2002 hit-and-run case. The HC acquitted Salman of all the charges in the case and termed lower court's verdict as erred.
The HC even rapped the prosecution over its failed presentation of any proof. It ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that actor was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident and was drunk.
The judgement came on an appeal by the superstar, seven months after he was pronounced guilty by the trial court of running over five people sleeping on a pavement outside a laundry in suburban Bandra with his Toyota Land Cruiser, killing one and causing injury to four others on October 28, 2002 and sentenced him to five years in jail.
"The appeal is allowed. The trial court's verdict is quashed and set aside...Salman is acquitted of all the charges," Justice A R Joshi said, reading out the judgement.
"....This court has come to the conclusion that the prosecution has failed to bring material on record to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the appellant (Salman was driving and was under the influence of alcohol, also, whether the accident occurred due to bursting (of tyre) prior to the incident or tyre burst after the incident...," the judge said.
After the verdict was pronounced in a jam-packed courtroom, the 49-year-old actor, overcome with emotions, broke down in full public view before being asked by his long-time bodyguard Shera to turn his face toward the wall so people do not see his tears. A visibly relieved Salman was later seen humming a song as sister Alvira flashed a 'Thumbs up' sign.
The judge rejected as "wholly unreliable" the statement of eyewitness Ravindra Patil, former police bodyguard of Salman, recorded by a Magistrate in which he had accused the actor of driving under the influence of liquor.
The judge said Patil a "wholly unreliable" witness because he had subsequently made "improvements" in his statement to the Magistrate. Patil, the first informant in the case, had in the FIR filed soon after the accident, not accused Salman of having consumed liquor but only said he was "speeding" against his advice.
The prosecution's case during the trial firmly rested on the statement of Patil, who died in 2007, much before the case was tried afresh under the more serious charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The Magistrate's court had conducted the trial for a much lesser offence of causing death by rash and negligent driving.
Holding that the evidence was "weak", Justice Joshi dwelt upon the shortcomings in the prosecution's case, including not recording evidence of important witnesses and also omissions and contradictions in the evidence of injured witnesses.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has said the government will decide on whether to appeal against the judgement after going through the court's order.
"We will examine the (High) court order and decide further course of action."
The judge further said that the investigation was conducted in a faulty manner with many loose ends and as such benefit of this had to be given in favour of the accused.
It is the duty of the court to analyse the evidence submitted to it and to see that the offence is proved beyond reasonable doubt, Justice Joshi said.
He said he is of the considered view that the appreciation of evidence done by the trial court while convicting the appellant was not proper and legal, as per the principles of criminal jurisprudence.
Consequently it must be said that this is not a case where the prosecution has successfully established its charges, he observed, adding that the entire evidence of the prosecution was circumstantial in nature.
On the main aspects as to driving and drunkenness, the prosecution has not brought any material evidence which spells out the offence of the accused, the court said. The trial court erred in accepting bills (of Rain Bar and Restaurant where Salman had gone before the mishap) without a panchnama, the judge said while dictating the verdict.
(With PTI inputs)