Seven months after superstar Salman Khan was sentenced to 5 years jail by a sessions court in the 13-year-old hit-and-run case, the Bombay High Court today acquitted him of all the charges, holding that the prosecution had failed to prove he was driving the vehicle after having consumed alcohol.
Setting aside Salman's conviction, Justice A R Joshi said in the jam-packed courtroom, "The appeal is allowed. The trial court's verdict is quashed and set aside...Salman is acquitted of all the charges."
Holding that the evidence was "weak", Justice Joshi dwelt upon the shortcomings in the prosecution's case, such as not recording evidence of important witnesses and also omissions and contradictions in the evidence of injured witnesses.
He also expressed doubts over the statement of eyewitness Ravindra Patil, former police bodyguard of Salman, recorded by a Magistrate in which he had implicated the actor saying he was driving under the influence of liquor.
Justice Joshi described Patil as a "wholly unreliable" witness and said the appellant cannot be convicted on the basis of evidence given by him.
The judge said that he (Patil) was a wholly unreliable witness because he had subsequently made changes in his statement given to a magistrate. In the FIR filed soon after the mishap, he did not implicate Salman but in his statement before the court, he said that the actor was driving under the influence of liquor.
The judge also said the prosecution should have examined Kamaal Khan, singer friend of Salman, who was with him in the Toyota Land Cruiser when the mishap occurred on September 28, 2002.
Salman's driver Ashok Singh, in his deposition as a defence witness, had told the trial court that it was he who was at the wheel and not the actor. He also said that he had gone to the police after the mishap but his statement was not recorded.
"Strong suspicion can't be enough to hold anyone guilty," Justice Joshi said, acquitting Salman.
"While we are aware of public opinion, it is a settled opinion that courts need to decide on law (points)...Courts cannot be swayed by profession and status of the appellant," the Judge noted.
The 49-year-old actor broke down on hearing the verdict and was seen wiping his tears which trickled down.
Wearing blue jeans and black-and-white shirt, Salman looked relieved.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said, the government will decide whether to appeal against the verdict after going through the order.
"We will examine the (High) court order and decide further course of action.