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3.6.1 – Charge: Circumstantial Evidence and Inferences

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Evidence comes in many forms. It can be evidence about what someone saw or heard. It can be an exhibit admitted into evidence. It can be someone's opinion.

Some evidence can prove a fact directly. For example, if a witness said that s/he saw or heard it raining outside, that would be direct evidence of the fact that it was raining.

Other evidence can prove a fact indirectly. For example, if a witness said that s/he saw someone enter the courthouse wearing a raincoat and carrying an umbrella, both dripping wet, that would be indirect or ‘circumstantial’ evidence of the fact that it was raining outside. You can conclude from the witness’s evidence that it was raining, even though s/he didn’t actually see or hear the rain.

As far as the law is concerned, it makes no difference whether evidence is direct or indirect. Although people often believe that indirect or circumstantial evidence is weaker than direct evidence, that is not true. It can be just as strong or even stronger. What matters is how strong or weak the particular evidence is, not whether it is direct or indirect.

However, you must take care when drawing conclusions from indirect evidence. You should consider all of the evidence in the case, and only draw reasonable conclusions based on the evidence that you accept. Do not guess. While we might be willing to act on the basis of guesses in our daily lives, it is not safe to do that in a criminal trial.

[In cases involving a significant amount of circumstantial evidence, add the following shaded section.]

In determining whether a conclusion is reasonable, you should look at all of the evidence together. It may help you to consider the pieces of evidence to be like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. While one piece may not be very helpful by itself, when all the pieces are put together the picture may become clear.

However, when putting all the pieces together, you must take care not to jump to conclusions. It is sometimes easy for people to be too readily persuaded of a fact, on the basis of insufficient evidence or evidence that turns out to be truly coincidental. Once convinced of that fact, they may then seek support for it in the other evidence, perhaps distorting that evidence to fit their theory or disregarding ‘inconvenient’ facts. You must make sure that you do not do this. You must keep an open mind, and be prepared to change your views.

You may only convict the accused if you are satisfied that his/her guilt is the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the whole of the evidence, both direct and indirect. If there is another reasonable view of the facts which is consistent with the accused’s innocence, then the prosecution will not have proved his/her guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and you must acquit him/her.

Last updated: 17 May 2019

See Also

3.6 - Circumstantial Evidence and Inferences

3.6.2 - Charge: Sole Evidence Direction

3.6.3 - Recent Possession