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What is Circumstantial Evidence?

Inferring someone was responsible for a shooting because he/she was holding a gun is an example of circumstantial evidence.
A witness taking an oath to tell the truth before giving testimonial evidence.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2014
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Circumstantial evidence is evidence in a case which can be used to draw inferences about a series of events. It is also known as indirect evidence; the opposite is direct evidence. This type of evidence is an important part of any criminal trial, and both sides in a trial will generally try to find some to support themselves. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to obtain a conviction with the use of circumstantial evidence, if it is backed up by corroborating evidence and other factual information.

A classic example of circumstantial evidence would be testimony from a witness who arrived at a crime scene to find someone holding a smoking gun. The person holding the gun could have committed the crime in question, but he or she could also be an innocent bystander. A piece of corroborating evidence to support a case against the person holding the gun might come from another witness who testifies to hearing a gunshot seconds before the first witness arrived on the scene, suggesting that the murder would not have had a chance to get away.

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Essentially, circumstantial evidence paints a picture of the details of the case. Good lawyers are very talented at extracting evidence in a way which will support an end point. They can also undermine this type of evidence by making the witness seem less credible, using a variety of techniques. The acceptance of circumstantial evidence in a case can make or break the verdict, especially when there is little direct evidence to link the accused with the crime.

If a witness says that he or she saw someone shoot someone else, this is direct evidence, because it requires no inferences. This witness saw the murder or injury and testifies to that effect. In a case like this, circumstantial evidence might be used to support the testimony of that witness, to ensure that the prosecution has a tight case. The defense may also attempt to use evidence to undermine the case of the prosecution by clouding the details of the event in question.

In many courts of law, juries and judges are required to consider all available evidence before making a decision. In a case with a severe punishment, the prosecution must generally prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. In a case like this, circumstantial evidence must be carefully gathered and corroborated so that the evidence paints a clear and obvious picture. Should the prosecution fail to prove the case, the perpetrator could go free.

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anon200914
Post 4

Theoretically, both direct and circumstantial evidence should carry approximately the same weight in court, but in reality direct evidence seems to win out over circumstantial. I can look up at the sky and see water coming out of the clouds, accompanied by lightning and thunder. I can show a radar image of thunderstorms in the area. I can videotape the rain as it falls on my yard. Those pieces of direct evidence should convince any jury that it did indeed rain yesterday.

But I can also walk out on my porch and see wet grass. I can also see a tree with a scorch mark. I can hear my neighbors complain about a storm damaging their roof. That's all circumstantial evidence, but it should also be enough to convince a jury that a storm occurred yesterday.

The problem is, a defense attorney for Mother Nature can argue that the water on my grass was caused by a sprinkler system. The tree was not struck by lightning; it just broke in half on its own. The neighbors could have been discussing a storm that happened weeks ago, or you may have misunderstood their (inadmissable) conversation completely. *That's* the problem with circumstantial evidence. Mother Nature's defense attorney can't argue much about a videotape or radar readings, but he can plant a boatload of reasonable doubt in the jury's mind with circumstantial evidence.

As with the recent Casey Anthony case, you can't rely on the "if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it's probably a duck" theory. A jury wants to see physical evidence of a duck, and it wouldn't hurt to call Daffy Duck and Donald Duck to the stand to testify about the nature of ducks, walking and quacking-wise.

StreamFinder
Post 3

As far as courtroom evidence goes, do you think that circumstantial evidence is as good as testimony evidence, or is testimony evidence stronger.

I would assume that they are of course best used together, but is there really one that is always better than the other?

FirstViolin
Post 2

Thanks for this article -- you always here about circumstantial evidence in famous cases like the Scott Peterson trial's circumstantial evidence or really any other big trial's circumstantial evidence, but it's kind of hard to understand what it is.

This article really cleared it up, thanks.

rallenwriter
Post 1

I think that has got to be one of the very first things that gets drilled into criminal lawyers and attorneys -- do not use trial evidence if it could lead to a reasonable doubt.

Learning the difference between direct evidence vs circumstantial evidence is so, so important, and it is critical for any attorney to be able to immediately analyze potential evidence and say "This is circumstantial evidence," or "This is direct evidence."

If you ever go to a lawyer who is not fully aware of the difference, or who tried to get you to go to court on purely circumstantial evidence, find another one, or drop the case. It's simply not worth it when any prosecutor worth his fee will shoot you down in two seconds.

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