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 ). Thus, the distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence has little practical effect in the presentation or admissibility of evidence in trials.
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).