The judge 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.
Over 13 years after his car plowed through a group of homeless people sleeping on a pavement, killing one and wounding four, superstar Salman Khan on Thursday walked free after the Bombay High Court acquitted him of "all charges", overturning the trial court order sentencing him for five years.
The court held that the prosecution had failed to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that the 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.
"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."
Justice Joshi said, "There is a vast difference between Indian Penal Code sections - 304-A (causing death due to rashness) and 304, Part II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder).
"While 304-A entails a maximum punishment of two years and fine or both, 304, Part-II, attracts a punishment of maxium of ten years and fine or both. When the trial was initially held in the Metropolitan Magistrate's Court the charge was 304-A, while when it was in Sessions Court, it was under 304, Part-II - and hence the nature of offences are different and it cannot be said that the question in issue are substantially same," he said.
The judge said the statement of Ravindra Patil cannot be accepted under section 33 of Indian Evidence Act, particularly when he had died and was not available for cross-examination.
The judge 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. Summons had been issued to Khan by the trial court but the matter was not followed up further.
The court also rejected the prosecution's charge that Salman's family driver Ashok Singh, who had on March 28 appeared before the trial court and claimed he was behind the wheels at the time of the accident, was a "got up witness".
"The trial court has described family driver Ashok Singh has a 'got up witness' and that he came after 13 years. In fact, he has come on time. A wrong impression was created, that too by learned prosecutor in the Sessions Court that he was coming after 13 years," the judge said.
The prosecution had claimed only three people, including Salman, who was at the wheels, Patil and singer Kamaal Khan were present in the vehicle when the accident occurred. The defence, however, insisted that Singh was also present and driving. In his testimony, Singh had claimed he had gone to Bandra police to record his statement but was his request was turned down.
The court also rejected as "fabricated" the four bills of Rain Bar, where the actor and his friends were claimed to have consumed alcohol before the mishap, that prosecution had presented in support of its case. The bills were dated October 27, 2002, a day before the date of accident. There was also a noting on the bill in writing which said Salman had footed it, leading the court to conclude it was fabricated.
The judge said several witnesses, including the four injured had "probabalised" the defence theory about there being four persons in the vehicle and not three, as claimed by the prosecution.
The prosecution had alleged that the death and injury to the victims had occurred after Salman's car ran over the pavement dwellers.
The defence, however, had claimed Noorullah, the lone person who lost his life, was crushed to death when the actor's vehicle, under which he was trapped, accidentally got off the hook of the crane called in by the police to lift it.
Justice Joshi, also found serious discrepancies in the evidence of witnesses.
He referred to a series of lacunae, right from the extraction of blood samples of Salman to its transfer, preservation and testing to check the presence of alcohol.
After 6 ml of blood was collected from Salman following the mishap, a constable was asked to carry it to a forensic lab to test for presence of alcohol. However, it later came to light that the quantity of blood was only 4 ml. The constable, who was asked to hand over the sample to the analyst, said he gave it to a clerk.
The judge observed that "anomalies" and "missing links" created doubt over a crucial piece of biological evidence.
About what could possibly have caused the accident, the Judge said, the prosecution had failed to prove whether it occurred due to bursting of tyre or whether the tyre burst as a result of the impact of the crash.
He said while Inspector Kishan Shengal had said forensic experts were called to the police station to inspect the car and that it was not sent for forensic examination. Besides, RTO official Rajendra Keskar, after insepcting the vehicle had also undertaken a test drive. However, Inspector Rajendra Kadam , who was first to reach the spot, stated that the vehicle was towed to the police station, the Judge said.
Justice Joshi said in the order, "I am of the considered view that the appreciation of evidence by the trial court was not proper and legal in accordance with the principles of criminal jurisprudence".
"These definitely create a doubt about involvement of Salman for offences for which he was charged," he said.
The judge held that investigation in the case was done in a faulty manner with many loose ends and as such benefit of this had to be given to the accused.
"Bearing in mind the above circumstances, it can be said that the prosecution had failed to establish all the charges against the appellant (Salman) and hence on the basis of this type of evidence the appellant cannot be convicted."
Earlier, Salman Khan arrived at the court at 1.30 PM, accompanied by his bodyguard Shera, brother-in-law Ayush, sister Alvira and his manager, as the judge had insisted on his presence when the judgement was delivered.
The actor, who sported a moustache and beard, thanked his lawyers Amit Desai and Niranjan Mundargi.
Fans of the actor, advocates, High Court staff and members of public thronged the court where the verdict was delivered. A crowd had gathered outside the court to have a glimpse of the popular actor.