Salman Khan faces the prospect of spending up to 10 years in jail if a judge finds him guilty of killing a homeless man in a 2002 hit-and-run crash reportedly after a night out drinking.
Hours before the verdict, #WeLoveYouSalmanKhan and #SalmanVerdict were trending on Twitter. Friends from the industry were seen visiting Salman on Wednesday night.
The 49-year-old actor is known for cranking out some of Bollywood's biggest blockbusters and has an estimated Rs 300 crore riding on his films.
A tight security blanket has been thrown around the court where sessions judge DW Deshpande will pronounce the judgment. Only lawyers, media and court staff will be allowed to be present. While fixing May 6 for delivering the verdict last month, Deshpande had directed the actor to be present at 11.15 am.
Khan is accused of driving an SUV over pavement dwellers which resulted in the death of one person in 2002. He is also alleged to have been under the influence of alcohol at that time. He has been charged with culpable homicide. The judgment in the over 12-year-old case, that has seen many twists and turns, can make or mar the career of the star.
Public prosecutor Pradeep Gharat said he had presented the case as best he could to the Bombay sessions court judge, adding “we can only hope but cannot predict” a conviction. ”I am 100% confident that I have done my job and duty to the best of my ability,” said Gharat.
The actor said he was not at the wheel at the time of the accident. While the prosecution has insisted that a drunk Khan was driving the Toyota Land Cruiser that ran over the victims sleeping on the pavement, the actor said his driver, Ashok Singh, was behind the wheel. Singh has endorsed the defence's statement.
Gharat is hoping the court considers the testimony of police constable Ravindra Patil attached to Khan's security team who said in his statement to police the drunk actor lost control of the car while driving at about 90kmph. "The people were sleeping on the footpath. Salman and (his cousin) Kamaal ran away from the spot," said the constable, who died in 2007 of tuberculosis, said.
One of the sleeping labourers injured in the accident said in his statement that "Salman was so drunk he fell. He stood but he fell again and then he... ran away."
Although Patil passed away during the course of the trial, the magistrate court relied on his statement to press the additional charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder against the actor, which led to a retrial in the sessions court.
The magistrate court had observed that Khan had complete knowledge of the incident because Patil had asked the actor to slow down his car at the turning toward Hill Road.
“But without listening to his (Patil’s) request he (Khan) drove the said car … and unfortunately the incident happened,” said the magistrate’s court. “The alleged act of the accused was culpable homicide, and not an unfortunate incident beyond the control of accused.”
The defence argued that police had not obtained finger prints from the steering wheel to find out who was driving the vehicle.
Khan's lawyers contested the prosecution and said the actor had been drinking water all evening. They also said the man was killed during an operation to move the car, rather than in the crash itself, when the bumper fell off and landed on him.
The surprise element in the trial came when Khan’s driver, Ashok Singh, after 13 years came to the court and deposed he was at the wheel when the accident took place. Singh said the car’s front left tyre burst, making steering and braking difficult.
Khan has starred in more than 100 films and television shows since his first hit, Maine Pyar Kiya in the 1980s. But the body-building actor is no stranger to controversy off screen and in 1998 he spent more than a week in prison for killing endangered black bucks.
If the verdict goes against Khan, the biggest losers will be the producers of his films Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which are almost complete, as they will have to wait for release.
Observers said given his big fan base, Khan was likely to continue on with his career even if he was found guilty, so long as he avoided a lengthy jail term.
"If he gets a brief term, given his fan following it will be easy for him to rebound," said film critic B.B. Nagpal. "But certainly 10 years will put a full stop on his career."