One of the most common myths about criminal law is that a court can't convict a defendant based on circumstantial evidence. This is far from the truth, and it's important for anyone facing charges to understand how circumstantial evidence works. A criminal defense lawyer will want you to consider circumstantial evidence in light of these three issues.
What Makes Evidence Circumstantial?
A piece of evidence is circumstantial if it might cause a reasonable person to draw a conclusion. This is different than regular evidence because a piece of physical evidence has specific characteristics. For example, a gun has widely accepted qualities, such as its caliber. No circumstances change that fact about the weapon as evidence.
Conversely, evidence may have circumstantial elements. Suppose a defendant was seen in an argument with an assault victim. Later, the defendant shows up at the hospital with bruised and abraded knuckles. While that's not sufficient proof that the defendant punched the victim, a prosecutor would still be very interested to learn about the circumstances leading to the hospital visit.
Purely Circumstantial Cases
Although the state generally doesn't like bringing purely circumstantial cases, sometimes prosecutors feel the circumstances are enough to win a conviction. The law recognizes that enough circumstances can add up. To be clear, that means you can be convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence.
Consider the previous example of an assault allegation. Suppose the defendant and victim both were on camera during the argument, but then they went somewhere off-camera. If the only person who could have been there at the time of the assault was the defendant, that's a fairly strong bit of circumstantial evidence. Combined with the hospital visit, it becomes harder for the defendant to refute the claim that they assaulted the victim.
Refuting Circumstantial Claims
A criminal defense lawyer has every right to raise questions about the circumstances of a case. In the assault example, the defense might try to prove that someone else could have been at the off-camera location when the attack happened. The defense doesn't necessarily have to show that someone was there. Instead, they might focus on the fact that someone else could have been present.
Similarly, a criminal defense attorney will ask a judge to reject the evidence during the initial hearings in the case. The goal is to chip away at the prosecution's argument until it breaks. Ideally, the case is weak enough that the defense can convince the judge to dismiss. If that doesn't happen, they can still encourage jurors to consider why the prosecution isn't exploring other possibilities. For more information, contract a criminal defense attorney.