The Supreme Court held that the Karnataka High Court had not fulfilled its duty as an Appellate Court in an appeal against acquittal and observed that the High Court had failed to provide reasons and findings regarding the individual and collective roles of the appellants, as well as the applicability of Section 149 of the Indian Penal Code. The appeal was filed by the accused challenging their conviction by Karnataka High Court. The appellants were initially acquitted by the Sessions Court but were later convicted for offenses under Section 304 and Section 324 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 5,000/-.

A two-judge Bench of Justice Abhay S. Oka and Justice Sanjay Karol held, “Without recording any reasons and without recording any finding regarding the role played by the appellants individually and collectively, the High Court has jumped to the conclusion that the guilt of the accused has been established. The judgment does not throw any light on the question who were the authors of the injuries sustained by the deceased and the injured witnesses. There is no finding as to how Section 149 of IPC gets attracted. Thus, the only conclusion which can be drawn is that the High Court, as an Appellate Court, while hearing the appeal against acquittal, has not done its duty.”

The complainant had a property dispute with appellant no.1, his uncle, over water rights in the village of Hebbale. The appellants were accused of causing injuries to the victims, leading to their deaths, and also assaulting witnesses 1, 2, and 6 in the process.

Senior Advocate S. Nagamuthu appeared for the Appellants and Advocate Nishanth Patil appeared for the Respondent.

The appellants' counsel argued that the High Court did not properly evaluate the evidence on record, failed to establish the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt, and did not make specific findings regarding the involvement of each accused or the applicability of Section 149 of the IPC.

The issue before the Court was to examine the legality and validity of the High Court's judgment in an appeal against acquittal under Section 378 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.P.C.). The Court enumerated principles governing such appeals.

The Court explained that typically, in appellate jurisdiction, the focus is on whether the verdict is legally correct. However, in appeals against acquittal, the Appellate Court must first ascertain if the Trial Court's view was a possible one based on the evidence. The Court cannot reverse an acquittal simply because it believes guilt is proven beyond doubt; it must also conclude that no other view was possible.

The Court added that the Trial Court, which records the testimony of material witnesses and observes their demeanor, has an advantage in assessing witness credibility.

The Court found, “that there is no discussion about the testimony of eyewitnesses for deciding whether their testimony could be believed. In fact, there are no findings recorded by the High Court after reappreciating the evidence. There is not even a finding to indicate that the High Court considered the question whether the view taken by the Trial Court was a possible view.”

Given the substantial time that has passed since the incident, the Court opted not to remand the case. Instead, it reviewed the evidence of eyewitnesses and the Trial Court's findings. The Court found that Trial Court had made a detailed analysis and found serious flaws in the prosecution's case, such as the failure to explain a grievous injury sustained by one of the accused.

Ultimately, the Court found that the Trial Court's conclusions were possible based on the evidence, leading to the success of the appeal. The High Court's judgment was set aside, and the appellants were ordered to be released unless they were held in custody for another case. The appeal was allowed.

Cause Title: H.D. Sundara & Ors. v. State of Karnataka, [2023INSC858]

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