Circumstantial Evidence

views updated May 14 2018

Circumstantial Evidence

Jurisprudence defines evidence as any written or oral testimony given under-oath, including documents, records, or physical objects admissible in a court of law, according to established rules of evidence, either to prove or disprove the authenticity of alleged facts, claims, or accusations. Circumstantial evidence is indirect information or secondary facts that allow the reasonable inference of the principal fact, without actually proving that such inference is true. Therefore, circumstantial evidence ideally requires further corroboration through other forms of evidence to prove a fact. All presented evidence will be considered by a jury, or by a judge, depending on the nature of the legal process, to test its relevancy and level of reliability, including the credibility of witnesses. In the United States, until 1975, the decision about which evidence was admissible in court was decided on the basis of judicial precedent (e.g., prior court decisions in similar cases). In the absence of a statutory law on a particular matter, the judge would make the rules. This common law jurisprudence descends from the colonial British legal system.

California was the pioneer American state in the creation of four statutory codes (in 1872): the Civil Code, the Code of Civil Procedure, the Penal Code, and the Political Code, in which the Code of Evidence was also implemented, establishing the necessary standard criteria of importance, validity, and legal weight of different types of evidence for civil and criminal courts. The California Evidence Code has inspired both the federal and other state legislations, in varied degrees, since then. However, only in 1974 did the Congress approve the implementation of the Federal Rules of Evidence , proposed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the preceding years.

The purpose of evidence in courts is to prove or disprove the existence of a fact. The level of proof or evidence presented must be solid enough to convince the court that such fact is true beyond a reasonable doubt, especially in criminal trials . In civil trials however, the standard of proof is often based on whether the true existence of the fact is more probable than not. Circumstantial evidence, therefore, carries different weight in criminal and civil trials.

Circumstantial evidence, in spite of its indirect nature, may be of great value, for instance, in highlighting inconsistencies between the behavior of a suspect and his allegations, thereby "filling in the blanks" of a probable crime scenario. For instance, although a suspect was unseen at the crime scene, the tire prints found on the scene match those of his car and a similar car was seen in the vicinity of the crime scene around the time the crime was committed. Or, sometime before the crime, the victim may have told a friend that they were afraid of the suspect, or a neighbor overheard a bitter and violent argument between the victim and the suspect in the recent past. Circumstantial evidence may be presumptive and inconclusive, admitting rebuttal by the other part, or, on the contrary, its quantity and pattern may be strong enough to substantiate a prosecution where other types of evidence are scarce and by themselves inconclusive.

One recent example of use of circumstantial evidence was the trial of Scott Lee Peterson, where the evidence presented was essentially circumstantial. A day after reporting that his eight-months pregnant wife was missing (December 23, 2002), Peterson was considered a suspect, because investigators found he had several extra-marital affairs since his marriage, and had recently been in a relationship with another woman. Petersen alleged that at the time of his wife's disappearance he was fishing at the Berkeley Marina, and was innocent. In April 2003, the remains of an unborn baby and the partial remains of a woman were found on the shores of the San Francisco Bay. Autopsy and other forensic tests identified the remains as those of his wife and her baby, although where, how, and when she died was not specifically determined. The FBI and forensic teams conducted extensive investigations at the Petersons' house, as well as searching Scott Peterson's boat, truck, toolbox, clothes, and personal objects, in search of forensic evidence of violence such as bloodstains or weapons. No physical piece of forensic evidence was identified that could link Peterson to the murder of his wife.

Although the prosecution could not present any physical evidence of Peterson's involvement with the crime, and the defense tried to defuse the circumstantial evidence, in November 2004, the jury convicted Scott Peterson of first degree murder for killing the wife "with special circumstances," and of second degree murder for killing his unborn baby. That December, the jury recommended a death sentence for Scott Peterson. In a press conference, the jurors declared that they had found Peterson guilty, in part, because of his demeanor. Circumstantial evidence including Peterson's change in haircut and color immediately after the crime, buying a car in his mother's name, and testimony by his ex-lover that he frequently lied and said he was a widower previous to the crime, weighed heavily with the jury.

One case where forensic evidence supported circumstantial evidence was California vs. Orenthal James Simpson in 1995. Nicole Brown, the ex-wife of famous football player and actor O. J. Simpson, was killed with her friend Ronald Goldman, on June 12, 1994. Evidence from the crime scene pointed to Simpson as a suspect, and he was later arrested for the crime.

The prosecution relied on forensic physical evidence along with circumstantial evidence to build the case against Simpson. Circumstantial evidence included footwear prints at the crime scene that matched Simpson's size, failure to keep an arranged appointment with the police to turn himself in, initiating a two-hour-long highway journey in a white Ford Bronco with police in pursuit, a left-handed glove found among Simpson's belongings that matched a bloody right-handed glove found at the crime scene, a documented history of domestic abuse against Brown, previous telephone calls made by the victim in which she relayed fears of being physically injured by Simpson to the police, and a letter from Simpson given to a friend that indicated an intention to leave the country in disguise.

Forensic evidence supported much of the circumstantial evidence. More than 40 bloodstains were tested for DNA fingerprinting, and each could be linked with either the victims and/or to Simpson. These samples were taken from the primary crime scene area, the secondary scene area, Simpson's Ford Bronco, and from Simpson's home. DNA profiles that matched the victims were found in blood taken from the crime scene and from Simpson's Bronco.

In spite of the circumstantial evidence, often supported with forensic evidence, the jury declared O. J. Simpson not guilty of murder in 1995. A civil jury, however, used much of the same evidence to convict Simpson on a civil court in 1997, and awarded the victim's families over 30 million dollars in damages.

In some countries, circumstantial evidence in the absence of other more solid testimonial and material evidence is not admissible in criminal courts. Circumstantial evidence is considered relevant to a case as an explanatory complement to existing testimonial and/or forensic evidence of indisputable accuracy. Controversy about the two cases above described continues among jurists and other experts, due to the perceived quality and relevance of evidence presented in each of those trials.

see also Artificial fibers; Blood; Bloodstain evidence; Civil court, forensic evidence; CODIS: Combined DNA Index System; Crime scene investigation; Crime scene reconstruction; DNA fingerprint; DNA profiling; DNA sequences, unique; DNA typing systems; Evidence; Expert witnesses; Federal Rules of Evidence; Fibers; Hair analysis; PCR (polymerase chain reaction); RFLP (restriction fragment length polymorphism); Statistical interpretation of evidence; U.S. Supreme Court (rulings on forensic evidence).

Circumstantial Evidence

views updated May 23 2018


Information and testimony presented by a party in a civil or criminal action that permit conclusions that indirectly establish the existence or nonexistence of a fact or event that the party seeks to prove.

circumstantial evidence is also known as indirect evidence. It is distinguished from direct evidence, which, if believed, proves the existence of a particular fact without any inference or presumption required. Circumstantial evidence relates to a series of facts other than the particular fact sought to be proved. The party offering circumstantial evidence argues that this series of facts, by reason and experience, is so closely associated with the fact to be proved that the fact to be proved may be inferred simply from the existence of the circumstantial evidence.

The following examples illustrate the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence: If John testifies that he saw Tom raise a gun and fire it at Ann and that Ann then fell to the ground, John's testimony is direct evidence that Tom shot Ann. If the jury believes John's testimony, then it must conclude that Tom did in fact shoot Ann. If, however, John testifies that he saw Tom and Ann go into another room and that he heard Tom say to Ann that he was going to shoot her, heard a shot, and saw Tom leave the room with a smoking gun, then John's testimony is circumstantial evidence from which it can be inferred that Tom shot Ann. The jury must determine whether John's testimony is credible.

Circumstantial evidence is most often employed in criminal trials. Many circumstances can create inferences about an accused's guilt in a criminal matter, including the accused's resistance to arrest; the presence of a motive or opportunity to commit the crime; the accused's presence at the time and place of the crime; any denials, evasions, or contradictions on the part of the accused; and the general conduct of the accused. In addition, much scientific evidence is circumstantial, because it requires a jury to make a connection between the circumstance and the fact in issue. For example, with fingerprint evidence, a jury must make a connection between this evidence that the accused handled some object tied to the crime and the commission of the crime itself.

Books, movies, and television often perpetuate the belief that circumstantial evidence may not be used to convict a criminal of a crime. But this view is incorrect. In many cases, circumstantial evidence is the only evidence linking an accused to a crime; direct evidence may simply not exist. As a result, the jury may have only circumstantial evidence to consider in determining whether to convict or acquit a person charged with a crime. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that "circumstantial evidence is intrinsically no different from testimonial [direct] evidence"(Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 75 S. Ct. 127, 99 L. Ed. 150 [1954]). Thus, the distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence has little practical effect in the presentation or admissibility of evidence in trials.

further readings

Romano, John F. 1999. "Prohibitions in the Use of Circumstantial Evidence: Key Tips on Gaining Strategic Advantage." Trial Lawyer 22 (January-February): 2–4.

Romano, John F., and Rodney G. Romano.1998. "The Circumstantial Evidence Generation: 25 Guidelines for Winning the Circumstantial Evidence Case. Trial Diplomacy Journal 21 (May-June).

Circumstantial Evidence

views updated May 23 2018

Circumstantial Evidence ★★ 1935

Newspaper reporter (Chandler) goes to extremes for a story and nearly dies as a result. Chandler sets it up to look like he's murdered a colleague, and he's tried and convicted on, you guessed it, circumstantial evidence. The colleague's then supposed to come forward but there's a problem. 69m/B VHS, DVD . Chick Chandler, Shirley Grey, Dorothy Revier, Arthur Vinton; D: Charles Lamont; W: Ewart Adamson.