Circumstantial Evidence: more important than you think!

At first blush, circumstantial evidence seems to hold little value. For instance, just because someone saw James leaving Jane’s apartment the night before she died does in and by itself indicate that James killed Jane. After all, it is “only” circumstantial evidence. Yet, how many crimes are convicted based direct evidence of a witness seeing James kill Jane? Depending on the quality of the circumstantial evidence and the facts of the case, circumstantial evidence can carry the day at trial.

Oftentimes, in legal dramas or Hollywood movies, we hear the comment “it’s only circumstantial evidence!” However, by definition, circumstantial evidence is not weaker than direct evidence. Under Canadian law, the test is the same whether the evidence is direct or circumstantial: is there any evidence upon which a reasonable jury properly instructed could return a verdict of guilty? This evidence can be either direct or circumstantial.

Direct evidence relates directly to the fact in issue and the only source of error is the witness. For example: “ I saw John kill Jane”.  In this example, direct evidence only requires the judge or jury to assess the testimonial capabilities of the witness.

Circumstantial evidence is evidence that tends to prove a factual matter by proving other events or circumstances from which [either alone or in combination with other evidence] the occurrence of the matter in issue can be reasonably inferred. For example: “I saw John leaving Jane’s apartment the night before Jane was found dead”.  In this case, the judge or jury must determine whether statement of the witness is relevant to a material issue in addition to the testimonial capabilities of the witness. There can therefore be more than one source of error.

The corollary to direct evidence having only one source of error is that it is only one source of evidence. However, even honest witnesses can make errors and reliance on a single eyewitness account could result in mistaken convictions.  In a similar vein, while the disadvantage of circumstantial evidence is the additional sources of error, multiple sources of evidence can also reinforce each other.

For example, would you prefer the testimony of one eyewitness who said “I saw John kill Jane with a knife” over the testimony of a forensics expert testifying that the cause of death was a gunshot wound and the police officer who found a gun with Jame’s fingerprints at the scene of the crime?

However, there can often be more than one logical conclusion from the same set of circumstances. Perhaps John stabbed Jane first before killing her with a gun he stole from James.  However, this is when the “benefit of the doubt” principle comes into play. If circumstantial evidence does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that James did it, and there is a possibility of innocence, James would not be convicted.

Although the decision from the Shafia trial is not available yet, based on news reports, it appears that circumstantial evidence such as broken pieces of the headlight of a car owned by one of the three accused and scratches on the car were primarily used to return a finding of guilt.

So the next time you hear “but that is only circumstantial evidence” think again!

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