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Circumstantial evidence

There is a perception that circumstantial evidence is inferior to direct evidence. That perception is wrong but its articulation often conceals a deeper problem; the ability to understand the relationship of one fact to another fact is a variable and is dependent on the discovery of that factual relationship, by society, and, fortuitously, intelligence in the individual to make the discovery his/her own.

To prove something is to undertake a more or less difficult task. The first requirement is the formulation of the proposition to be proved. Usually, in criminal law, the obligation to make reference in the charge or summons, to the law allegedly breached, compels the production of a statement of, or at least an allusion to, the prosecution’s objective; to prove the necessary facts to support the charge.

In civil or criminal law, having determined what facts need to be proved, the available evidence needs to be viewed (or re-viewed), considered, assessed and, where necessary and possible, supplemented.

A straightforward case might involve the evidence of an eyewitness. If the eyewitness evidence is to the effect that the accused (in a criminal trial) was seen committing the crime, that is direct evidence of the facts needed to be proved. This kind of evidence is common in crimes of violence, often coming from the victim. If the victim has died (as happened HERE) there is a special rule in the law of evidence permitting the admission of the statement of the deceased into evidence notwithstanding it will be hearsay evidence.

Fingerprints are a form of circumstantial evidence. Only with the discovery that a person’s fingerprint is unique to that person could the significance of a fingerprint as evidence be appreciated. (The preceding statement is not accurate; for many people understanding something is a social thing, they are persons of convention. Conventional knowledge is all they know. Only when a thing is generally known is it known).

What is proved by the production of fingerprint evidence? Usually something banal; that the person was in a particular location or touched a particular object or surface. It is usually banal because the proof of such matters will often imply nothing suspicious. We leave our fingerprints everywhere we go. What is required is a circumstance in which the fingerprint is found in a place where we deny we went or where we were not authorised to be. It is the circumstances that give the meaning to the fingerprint evidence.

Arguably, the distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence is not real. Very little evidence of any kind stands on its own without explanation. With direct evidence the explanation may be more of a tacit than express kind, but it will be there somewhere.

In a criminal trial the state of mind of the defendant is relevant. For the prosecution this implies the need to prove motive. The proof of a motive may lie in financial records. Such records are circumstantial evidence of the motive, as opposed to the financial situation. In either event, an explanation will be required to be given with the evidence irrespective of the objective of the prosecution in tendering the evidence.

Prosecutorial wrongdoing aside, evidence is intended to be coherent and full. If it lacks these qualities it is questionable whether the burden of proof has been discharged, whether beyond a reasonable doubt or on the balance of probabilities.

In a case based on circumstantial evidence that evidence may be more likely to have the qualities of being coherent and full than, say, visual identification evidence which is definitely in the category of “directâ€? evidence. (Visual identification evidence is notoriously prone to error by the witness).