Claim: Circumstantial evidence alone is too weak to get a guilty verdict, so judges will dismiss cases based solely on it.
Circumstantial evidence is no weaker than any other type of evidence, and is sufficient on its own to reach a guilty verdict. Evidence that is circumstantial merely needs a logical inference to connect it to the accused’s guilt.
“Circumstantial evidence” doesn’t mean bad evidence. Fingerprints, for example, are considered circumstantial evidence.
Direct evidence is evidence which speaks directly to the suspect’s guilt. This can include a video the accused committing a crime, or incriminating statements made to the police. It also includes eyewitness testimony, which can be persuasive for juries despite its possibility for unreliability.
Circumstantial evidence, in contrast, requires an inference to support guilt. Fingerprints are circumstantial evidence because they only prove directly that the person touched an object; an inference is required conclude that the object was touched while committing a crime. Almost all forensic evidence, including DNA matching, is circumstantial. Though a single piece of circumstantial evidence may on its own be insufficient, it can be quite persuasive in quantity.
Consider a man accused of murder. All evidence against him is circumstantial. He was witnessed entering the victims apartment shortly before her death. The witness heard a gunshot, and then saw the man leave the apartment quickly. A shoe print matching the man’s boot was next to the body, along with a gun bearing his fingerprints. When apprehended, he had the victim’s blood on his shirt, and a laptop that had been stolen from her apartment. When questioned, he lied about his alibi.
Because no one actually saw the man shoot the woman, we cannot be 100% sure that he is guilty. But the standard in criminal convictions is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The amount of circumstantial evidence in this case leaves no other reasonable explanation. Direct evidence is not necessary when there is sufficient circumstantial evidence.
The classic piece of evidence — the “smoking gun” — is circumstantial, after all.