If Trial Court’s View In A Case Of Acquittal Is Plausible, Appellate Court Can't Convict Accused By Reappreciating Evidence: SC
The Supreme Court reiterated that if the trial court's view while acquitting the accused is plausible, the Appellate court cannot convict the accused by reappreciating the evidence.
The Court allowed a Criminal Appeal challenging the conviction judgment of the High Court while the Trial Court had acquitted the accused.
The Court noted the 'two-views theory' and observed that when evidence can be interpreted in two equally plausible ways, the benefit should go to the accused. This approach safeguards the presumption of innocence by favouring interpretations that support the accused's innocence when multiple possibilities exist.
The Bench comprising Justice Bela M. Trivedi and Justice Satish Chandra Sharma observed, “if the view of the Trial Court, in a case of acquittal, is a plausible view, it is not open for the High Court to convict the accused by reappreciating the evidence”.
Advocate Supreeta Sharanagouda appeared for the Appellant and Advocate D. L. Chidananda appeared for the Respondent.
Three appellants initially acquitted by the Trial Court for the murder of Marthandappa were later convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by the High Court. They appeal against this conviction, seeking exoneration. Out of the eight accused, only three appellants were convicted by the High Court.
The prosecution's case centred around an alleged illicit relationship between the deceased and the wife of Accused No. 5. While Marthandappa, PW3, and PW4 were travelling in a bullock cart, they were intercepted by Accused No. 1 to 8 near Balwantappa Channur land. The accused, armed with various weapons, attacked Marthandappa, resulting in fatal injuries. PW3 witnessed the incident while hiding nearby. Marthandappa succumbed to his injuries, and PW4 was left unconscious. PW3 reported the incident to authorities, leading to an investigation and the subsequent arrest of the accused. Following a trial, Accused No. 3 to 5 were convicted, while the others were acquitted. This appeal concerned Appellant Nos. 1 and 2.
The Court framed the issue: “Whether the High Court was correct in reversing the order of acquittal of the Trial Court and thereby convicting the accused persons under Section 302 IPC”.
The Court noted that Accused Nos. 1 to 5 are brothers, while Accused Nos. 6 to 8 are relatives of accused Nos. 1 to 5, residing in Aidbhavi, Taluk Lingasgur. The complainant, PW-2 (Narsappa), was the father of the deceased Marthandappa, and PW-4 and PW-3 are his nephews, residing in the same village. The accused persons are familiar to the victims and the complainant.
The Court observed that the cardinal principle of criminal jurisprudence upholds the presumption of innocence in favour of the accused unless proven guilty. This presumption persists throughout the trial and solidifies into a fact upon acquittal. The acquittal strengthens this presumption, demanding a higher threshold to rebut it on appeal. While an acquittal is appealable, the High Court's power to reevaluate evidence is qualified, especially in acquittal cases. The key considerations include whether the Trial Court adequately assessed the evidence, whether its findings were legally sound, and whether its view was reasonable. Reversing an acquittal requires demonstrating illegality or perversity, not just a difference of opinion.
Additionally, the Court observed that the Trial Court meticulously analyzed and considered various aspects of the case, raising doubts about the credibility of the testimonies, especially that of PW-4. However, the High Court disregarded these doubts, emphasizing PW-4's status as an injured witness and finding no reason to distrust his testimony. Yet, crucial aspects such as the delayed recording of PW-4's statement and his familial relationship with the deceased were overlooked by the High Court. These omissions cast serious doubts on the credibility and impartiality of PW-4's testimony. “In our considered view, the same was not permissible for the High Court, in light of the law discussed above. Setting aside an order of acquittal, which signifies a stronger presumption of innocence, on a mere change of opinion is not permissible. A low standard for turning an acquittal into conviction would be fraught with the danger of failure of justice”, the Bench added.
Furthermore, the Court emphasized that the High Court failed to address significant factors that cast doubt on the prosecution's case, such as contradictions regarding the timeline and nature of injuries, which were carefully scrutinised by the Trial Court. In both trials and appeals, a comprehensive examination of evidence is essential, necessitating a holistic approach rather than a narrow perspective. Evaluating evidence involves weighing all relevant facts against each other, and a conviction should only be reached when the entirety of the evidence consistently supports guilt. Failing to consider all pertinent evidence leads to incomplete assessment and potentially unjust outcomes.
The Bench emphasised that the foundation of our criminal justice system rests on the assurance that innocent individuals will not be wrongly convicted. Safeguards and principles within criminal law aim to avert any miscarriage of justice. The Court noted, “the principles which come into play while deciding an appeal from acquittal could be summarized as:
(i) Appreciation of evidence is the core element of a criminal trial and such appreciation must be comprehensive – inclusive of all evidence, oral or documentary;
(ii) Partial or selective appreciation of evidence may result in a miscarriage of justice and is in itself a ground of challenge;
(iii) If the Court, after appreciation of evidence, finds that two views are possible, the one in favour of the accused shall ordinarily be followed;
(iv) If the view of the Trial Court is a legally plausible view, mere possibility of a contrary view shall not justify the reversal of acquittal;
(v) If the appellate Court is inclined to reverse the acquittal in appeal on a re-appreciation of evidence, it must specifically address all the reasons given by the Trial Court for acquittal and must cover all the facts;
(vi) In a case of reversal from acquittal to conviction, the appellate Court must demonstrate an illegality, perversity or error of law or fact in the decision of the Trial Court”.
The Court noted that the prosecution failed to establish a complete chain of circumstances. The Court observed that the evidence was inconclusive to support a conviction. The High Court's reversal lacked findings of illegality or error, leading the appellate court to set it aside and restore the Trial Court's acquittal verdict.
Accordingly, the Court allowed the Appeal and set aside the High Court’s conviction judgment.
Cause Title: Mallappa & Ors. v State of Karnataka (2024 INSC 104)
Appellant(s): Supreeta Sharanagouda, Sharanagouda Patil and Jyotish Pandey, Advocates.
Respondent(s): D. L. Chidananda and Ravindera Kumar Verma, Advocates.