Circumstantial Evidence

Circumstantial evidence is one type of evidence that can be used in criminal law. In this article, we’ll define the term “circumstantial evidence,” contrast it with direct evidence and give examples of both. 

Key Takeaways

  • Circumstantial evidence, also called indirect evidence, is a type of evidence that requires logical inference in order to imply something happened
  • Circumstantial evidence can be contrasted with direct evidence, which can establish that something did or did not happen on its own
  • Circumstantial and direct evidence are treated equally in a court of law
  • Circumstantial evidence can sometimes be even more reliable than direct evidence, and many criminal convictions are made on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone

What Is Circumstantial Evidence?

Circumstantial evidence is a type of indirect evidence that does not itself prove something but rather implies something through logical inference. In order to support a claim, circumstantial evidence requires drawing reasonable inferences. This is in contrast with direct evidence, which establishes the existence or non-existence of a fact on its own.

According to the law, circumstantial and direct evidence are treated equally, with neither being given more weight. In fact, circumstantial evidence can sometimes be even more reliable than direct evidence because of issues such as misidentification and false testimony. As such, many criminal convictions are based on circumstantial evidence alone, as long as it is adequate to meet the established standards of proof

Examples of Circumstantial Evidence

For example, let’s say that we are jurors in a murder case in which the defendant is accused of shooting somebody to death with a gun. If a witness testifies that he heard a gunshot, ran to the scene of the crime, and saw the defendant holding a gun, this counts as circumstantial evidence. This is because the witness did not actually see the crime happen, making the evidence indirect. Through logical inference, it is possible to infer that the defendant shot the gun and killed the victim. However, this is not the only possibility, as he also could have simply picked up the weapon after the true killer dropped it.

In contrast, if a witness saw the defendant fire the bullet into the body of the victim, this is direct - not circumstantial - evidence. Note that neither of the types of evidence mentioned above is conclusive. Even if the evidence is not circumstantial, the witness could still be lying. 

Defenses Against Circumstantial Evidence

If you are the defendant in a case where circumstantial evidence is being used, you may wonder what kind of defenses your legal team can use against it. Some of the most common defenses against circumstantial evidence include:

  • Arguing that the prosecution's interpretation of the circumstantial evidence is incorrect
  • Offering other interpretations of the circumstantial evidence that suggest the defendant is not guilty or that somebody else is 
  • Claiming that the circumstantial evidence is unreliable 
  • Discrediting a witness who presented circumstantial evidence 

Ultimately, both the prosecution and the defense are tasked with presenting evidence to prove their arguments. It is up to the jury or the judge to choose which side they believe is most likely to be true.

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