Updated: Jul 5
You are watching a crime show on television, and you see the detectives looking into a murder; they have their board up, and they are going through the evidence they have against one suspect. Then you hear it, someone, usually the lead character says, “It is just a lot of circumstantial evidence, we need concrete proof.”
You are confused because what they have clearly points to the suspect they have in custody. What does circumstantial evidence mean? Why isn’t that good enough, and what more proof are they looking for?
Here we are going to cover what it means when they say circumstantial evidence.
Circumstantial evidence is also known by indirect evidence. Direct evidence is concrete proof, and indirect evidence leaves room for presumption. Therefore, the main difference between circumstantial evidence and direct evidence is the presumptions used to fill in the blanks. Circumstantial evidence isn’t enough to convict someone because it requires your imagination.
If that is still confusing for you, try this example:
Rick and Joe are arguing, Tom, is sitting in a chair nearby. Finally, the argument comes to a head, and Rick pulls out a gun and shoots Joe, killing him. Tom goes to the police and tells them what he saw and agrees to testify in court that he saw Rick kill Joe. That is direct evidence.
However, Rick and Joe are arguing, Tom, is sitting in a chair nearby. Rick and Joe continue to argue as they make their way to the kitchen while Tom stays where he is. Tom then hears a gunshot, and Rick comes running and says Joe is dead. Tom’s testimony of hearing the shot and saying it was Rick, but not seeing it, is circumstantial.
Circumstantial evidence is often used in criminal trials because it can create inferences about the suspect's guilt. Things like the accused’s resisting arrest, the presence of a motive, or even the opportunity to commit the crime are used as circumstantial evidence in a criminal hearing.
Not all criminal cases are quickly tried because oftentimes, circumstantial evidence is the majority of what is presented. If the suspect was in the place of the crime at the time the crime was committed and even has a fingerprint on the weapon used, it is all circumstantial unless someone or a video recorder actually saw the crime being committed. However, that doesn’t mean that a conviction can’t be had. Often times the circumstantial evidence is more than enough for a jury to determine that the suspect is the one who committed the crime and justice is served.
Don’t think that what you see on television is fact. Circumstantial evidence definitely has a place in the gathering of evidence, and frequently, the imagination of the jury is more than enough to put a dangerous offender off the streets for good.