Observing that “strong suspicion of guilt cannot be used to hold a person guilty”, Bombay High Court judge AR Joshi on Thursday acquitted actor Salman Khan in a 13-year-old hit-and-run case that killed one and injured four.
Overturning the order of a lower court, which had in May convicted the actor under charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to a jail term of five years, the high court said this was “not a case where prosecution has successfully established its case of all its charges”.
As the court pronounced that he was “acquitted of all charges and the order passed by the sessions court stands quashed and set aside”, the actor broke down. He was briefly heard humming a tune. The court had earlier asked the actor to be present for the verdict. Khan arrived at the courtroom (No. 43) at about 1.30 pm, accompanied by his sister Alvira.
In May, sessions judge DW Deshpande had found Khan guilty under all eight charges, including Section 304-II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 337 and 338 (rash and negligent driving).
However, the high court said it had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt that the actor was driving the vehicle and drinking on the night of the accident. It said the victim had died “as a vehicle ran over him when he was sleeping on the pavement”.
Joshi, who retires on December 19, also asked the Bandra police station to return Khan’s passport. The Bombay High Court began hearing Khan’s appeal against the sessions court’s order in July.
The high court observed that in a criminal trial, the burden to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt was on the prosecution. “In this case, considering there were various witnesses (in the case of prosecution), there were shortcomings in terms of not recording evidence of necessary witnesses, and omissions and contradictions of injured witnesses,” Joshi said.
“This raises doubts on the offences the accused has been charged with,” Joshi added.
“He cannot be convicted through popular perception. Careful analysis of evidence collected is required,” he said.
Observing that the prosecution’s evidence was “circumstantial in nature”, Joshi said that “while testimony of Salman’s bodyguard Ravindra Patil could be of a direct nature, the court had already said it could not be considered and the trial court had erred in taking it on record”.
The HC, which has pointed out faults with the sessions court’s verdict during the dictation of its orders since Monday, said “appreciation of evidence by trial court is not proper in accordance to principles of criminal jurisprudence”. It said the sessions court also erred in accepting the bills which were produced by the investigating agency as proof of the actor and his friends drinking at Rain Bar.
Pointing out that there were several hypotheses about the case, Joshi said: “The court must decide the case on material brought on record (which) can be accepted as evidence. It must not be swayed by popular opinion. The court is expected to be impervious to pressure from public.”
Stating that there was no place for general public opinion, he said opinion or perception is formed on the basis of information played through news by media and other institutions. “It is not new that a particular fact is repeatedly said and assumes the status of truth. The truth, however, has to be probed before court of law and established on the principles of evidence and cardinal principle of jurisprudence. This burden cannot be forgotten.”
The actor waited in the courtroom to sign the required paper work, before leaving at 5 pm.