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Circumstantial Evidence in Criminal Cases

Description and Examples of Circumstantial Evidence

Without evidence, there is no criminal case and no conviction. There are many types of evidence that all seek to prove different things in cases. One commonly used form of evidence in criminal and other cases is circumstantial evidence. In fact, most of the evidence used in criminal cases is circumstantial.

Circumstantial evidence is proof of a fact or even a set of facts from which someone could infer the facts in question. For instance, a suspect in a crime was seen by a witness fleeing the scene on foot after a convenience store robbery.

Circumstantial Evidence in Criminal Cases
Circumstantial evidence does not directly prove that a defendant committed a crime.

The “running away” from a crime scene is circumstantial evidence that they committed the robbery. On the flip is direct evidence, which directly proves any facts in question in a crime. In the same example, the witness observed the actual robbery and provided testimony at trial. This would be considered direct evidence.

Both direct and circumstantial evidence is legitimate proof that someone committed a crime. In fact, they are common in all state and federal criminal courts.

It is a fact that somebody could be convicted of a crime based only on circumstantial proof. Further, with the relatively common occurrence of false testimony and mistaken identification, circumstantial proof can be more reliable than direct evidence.

In California criminal trials, prosecutors frequently depend on circumstantial evidence to prove allegations against a defendant for a conviction. On the other side, criminal defense attorneys will make arguments to cast reasonable doubt on the alleged circumstantial proof.

They could even argue that if all the circumstantial facts are correct, they suggest it shows their client is innocent or, at minimum, there is at least some reasonable doubt of guilt, and they have to return an acquittal. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will discuss this topic further below.

What is Circumstantial Evidence?

When a defendant is charged with a felony or misdemeanor offense, the District Attorney must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to convict them.  They are obligated to exchange all relevant discovery material in advance, including the evidence they will use against the defendant.

Circumstantial evidence, also called “indirect evidence,” does not directly prove a defendant is guilty; instead, it's evidence of another fact that can lead to the conclusion or inference that the defendant is guilty.

What is Circumstantial Evidence?
The jury is responsible for interpreting circumstantial evidence when making a decision on guilt.

Circumstantial evidence is a set of facts or proof that, when added up, seeks to explain a certain point in question. In other words, Circumstantial proof means the evidence doesn't directly prove a crucial fact, but instead:

  • It proves another fact in the case;
  • Someone can reasonably conclude that a critical fact occurred.

When circumstantial evidence is presented to the court in a jury trial, the person bringing forward the evidence wants the jury to make inferences about what happened. For example, if you are inside a room with no windows and someone walks in wearing a wet raincoat while holding a wet umbrella, that is circumstantial evidence that it is raining outside.

People generally only wear raincoats and carry umbrellas when it's raining, so this evidence can infer that it is raining outside. There are other reasons why this person could be wet, though; maybe they walked through a sprinkler or a car wash.

When circumstantial evidence is strong, it tends to make other explanations of the evidence seem nonsensical. The prosecutor and defense attorney often advocate for their sides regarding interpreting circumstantial evidence in a case.

See related: Hearsay Rule

How Is It Different from Direct Evidence?

Circumstantial evidence requires a jury to infer what happened, while direct evidence is someone telling you they witnessed the events in question. Direct evidence can be:

  • eyewitness testimony,
  • eyewitness heard someone say certain statements,
  • videotape or pictures, and
  • other evidence that directly shows that an event took place.

A jury is not required to weigh direct or circumstantial evidence any differently. Direct evidence can be unreliable when the source of that evidence is considered unreliable.

If someone with a motivation to lie testifies about a fact in dispute, that motivation could cause untrue testimony. Juries are asked to weigh all the evidence to determine the facts in dispute to decide guilt.

Can a Jury Convict Someone Based Solely on Circumstantial Evidence?

Yes—actually, most criminal convictions are based solely on circumstantial evidence.  Further, California criminal law allows the prosecution to convict a defendant on circumstantial evidence alone. If direct evidence were always necessary for a conviction, a crime would need a direct eyewitness, or the guilty party would avoid criminal responsibility.

A prosecutor will use whatever evidence is available in seeking a criminal conviction against a defendant. If circumstantial evidence is all the prosecutor has, then that is what they will present when trying a criminal case.  Just like direct evidence, a prosecutor can use circumstantial evidence to prove:

  • all the elements of the crime;
  • a defendant's criminal intent.

What Do the Jury Instructions Say?

The California Criminal Jury Instructions 223 and 224 offer explanations about circumstantial evidence. CALCRIM 223 specifically defines direct and circumstantial evidence.

In these instructions, the judge will inform a jury that one type of evidence is not necessarily more reliable than the other and that neither type of evidence is entitled to any greater weight. CALCRIM 224 explains that the jury should only seek to make reasonable conclusions from any circumstantial evidence presented in a case.

It states that if there are two or more reasonable conclusions in a case where one points to innocence and one points to guilt, then you must accept that one that points to innocence. The jury is further instructed to reject any unreasonable conclusions.

See related: Spousal Privilege and Attorney-Client Privilege

What Are Some Possible Defenses?

A common defense against circumstantial evidence is that the prosecution's interpretation is incorrect. If the circumstantial evidence presented can also lend itself to other interpretations of what happened, then these different interpretations can be given to the jury for a decision.

When a prosecutor and defense attorney present their cases to the jury, they ask the jury to interpret the facts and circumstances in the way they see the case.

A defense attorney can also attack circumstantial evidence as unreliable and any witnesses who present circumstantial evidence to be inaccurate in their testimony. The jury is presented with the obligation of deciding the facts in a case and must choose a side and story to believe in when making a decision.

Defenses Against Circumstantial Evidence
There are several defense strategies to challenge the prosecutor's circumstantial evidence.

The core of any criminal case is evidence. As Denzel Washington once infamously said in the movie Training Day, “... it's not about what happened, it's about what you can prove.” He was talking about evidence and the prosecution's burden of proof.

If you are under a criminal investigation or already charged with a crime, contact our law office to review all the details and legal options. Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecution to reduce or dismiss the charges after showing them they can't prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Perhaps we could also enter into prefiling negotiations with law enforcement and the District Attorney to convince them not to file criminal charges in the first place, known as a “DA reject.”

The criminal defense law firm of Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles County. You can reach us for an initial case review by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.

We speak English, Russian, Armenian, and Spanish.

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