Circumstantial vs Direct Evidence in Criminal Justice

Evidence, which can only be inferred from the facts of a case, is known as circumstantial evidence. For instance, when a suspect is spotted fleeing a crime scene while carrying a weapon, circumstantial evidence indicates that this suspect may have committed the murder. In contrast, direct evidence demonstrates a claimed reality unequivocally and may be provided by an eyewitness who claims to have seen the suspect shoot the victim.

The courts accept both direct and circumstantial evidence as valid kinds of proof. Circumstantial evidence alone may even be used to convict a person of a crime. In fact, inferential proof is commonly considered to be even more reliable than direct proof due to the prevalence of false testimony and misidentification otherwise.

The prosecution often relies on circumstantial evidence in criminal cases, while the defense lawyers usually use one of the following two approaches to counter it:

  • The first approach is to question the circumstantial evidence itself. A conclusion should not be made if the assertions are not supported by evidence.
  • The second approach is to demonstrate that even if all of the circumstantial evidence is accurate, it still points to at least two logical conclusions where at least one of them supports the innocence of the accused or raises a legitimate question regarding the guilt of the accused.

Circumstantial Evidence Illustrated

Evidence which indirectly establishes a crucial truth is known as circumstantial proof. This kind of evidence proves a different fact, from which one may infer that a crucial event has occurred, as illustrated by the following examples:

  • “X” claims to have observed individuals entering a supermarket while sporting damp hair and raincoats. This serves as indirect evidence that it had been raining.
  • “Y” has been robbed and the police believe they have the robber in custody. Y claims at the trial of the accused that she had been robbed by a man in a blue t-shirt. A second witness claims to have seen the accused leaving the place of the crime while wearing a blue shirt. Such evidence, leading to the guilt of the accused for robbery, is circumstantial.
  • Accused “Z” faces an allegation of theft. The prosecution alleges that Z stole a watch from a shop. An acquaintance present at the accused’s trial claims to have seen Z at a party wearing a watch that looks just like the stolen one. This can be evidence of the accused having stolen the watch from the shop. The evidence would be different if the friend had claimed to have been with the accused when he stole the item from the shop (the crime scene).

Circumstantial evidence can also include forensic evidence, physical evidence, or fingerprint evidence and the same can be incontrovertible or indisputable.

Comparison Between Circumstantial Evidence and Direct Evidence

Direct proof is evidence explicitly showing a crucial fact. It commonly takes the form of eyewitness testimony in which a witness claims to have:

  • witnessed a criminal in specific action;
  • overheard someone else communicating something in general or in particular; or
  • seen a particular incident that has happened.

Unlike circumstantial evidence, direct evidence does not need a jury to draw reasonable conclusions. An important conclusion may be drawn by merely believing the witness, such as in the following scenarios:

  • A witness attests to rainy weather. Such personal experience serves as concrete evidence that it had been raining.
  • It is believed that X has stolen money from the cash drawer at work. Y, a coworker, admits in his statement that he has assisted X in committing the crime. This is clear and indisputable evidence that X has stolen the money.

Conviction of an Accused Through Circumstantial Evidence

A person may be found guilty in a criminal case based solely on circumstantial evidence. In fact, such proof is not thought to be intrinsically less trustworthy than direct evidence. Similar to direct evidence, indirect evidence can be used by the prosecution to support or refute the following:

  • the ingredients of an offence;
  • the subsistence or performance of specific acts; and
  • the intention or psychological status of the accused.

Regarding the latter, the prosecution is duty-bound to first prove that the accused has committed an offence and that too with a certain intention or psychological status. Such crimes include, for instance, murder (where the offender must have executed it with mens rea) and burglary (where the offender must have meant to perpetrate a theft). In such cases, the prosecution can prove the intent of the accused through circumstantial evidence.

This may be illustrated by the following example:

  • X has been apprehended while attempting to enter someone’s house. However, the prosecution must prove that X intended to commit theft of certain things from the house once inside in order to successfully convict X of burglary.
  • The prosecution presents proof that X went to the victim’s residence via taxi. He could have transported the stuff taken from the residence using that taxi. In addition, the prosecution has recorded the evidence of X’s friend testifying that X had been expressing extreme financial need.
  • The above two pieces of information provide circumstantial evidence that X entered the house with the intention of robbing it.

Implementation of Effective Defense Tactics

There are two effective legal tactics that a defense lawyer can employ when the prosecution solely relies on circumstantial evidence to prove guilt.

  • The first tactic is to show that the evidence is consistent with reasonable inferences yet distinct from determining the guilt of the accused.

To illustrate with an example: X is thought to have murdered his friend Y. Thereafter, Y’s neighbour gives evidence during the murder trial that he spotted X at Y’s house the night before he died. The prosecutor also produces evidence of X’s fingerprints having been found inside Y’s residence. Both pieces of evidence indicate X to have committed the murder of his friend Y, which is inferential proof. However, X’s defense lawyer may contend that the data supports a different finding according to which X paid Y a visit at his house just before someone else killed him – Y had been ill and had no one else to turn to for medical attention which is why X had been over to see how he was doing.

  • The second tactic is to disprove the validity of the evidence.

For instance, Z has been accused of criminal trespass for entering B’s land. The accusation is supported by the evidence of a witness claiming to have seen a person with Z’s build and stature on B’s land. However, this witness testimony recognizing the features of the accused has been provided by a person without glasses and with poor vision. In such case, a defense lawyer can ask the prosecutor to withdraw charges as the evidence is doubtful. A witness with poor vision provides inferential evidence at best.

Both the aforementioned tactics can disprove the assertion that the accused has committed a crime and done so beyond reasonable doubt.

Circumstantial Evidence in Shariah and its Acceptance in Pakistani Courts

The Shariah also recognizes circumstantial evidence in court proceedings. The Holy Quran discusses it in Surah Yousaf, Verse No. 25-28:

“…They raced towards the door, and she ripped his shirt from behind, and they found her (husband) by the door. She said, “What could be the punishment of him who intended evil with your wife, except that he be imprisoned or (given) a painful chastisement?” He (Yusuf) said, “It was she who tried to seduce me.” And a witness from her family observed that if his shirt was ripped from the front side, then she is true and he is a liar; and if his shirt was ripped from behind, the she is telling a lie and he is truthful…”

According to these verses, the tearing of the shirt was used as circumstantial evidence, which proved the innocence of Hazrat Yousaf (AS).

The admissibility of circumstantial evidence is similarly accepted by courts in Pakistan.


References

  • Article 2 of the Qanun-e-Shahadat Order, 1984
  • Article 71 of the Qanun-e-Shahadat Order, 1984
  • PLJ 2022 Cr.C. 620
  • PLD 2021 SC 600
  • 2017 SCMR 986
  • 2017 SCMR 2026
  • 2015 SCMR 155 ref.
  • 2011 SCMR 1127
  • PLD 1986 SC 690
  • PLD 1970 SC 56
  • Quran e Karim English Translation By Mufti Taqi Usmani

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Aamir Latif Bhatti

Author: Aamir Latif Bhatti

The writer serves as Civil Judge and Judicial Magistrate, Shaheed Benazirabad.

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