Circumstantial Evidence: Admissibility, Weightage and Risk Factor in Criminal Cases

Evidence can broadly be classified as direct and circumstantial evidence. In a layman’s understanding, circumstantial evidence is simply a collection of facts or evidence which, on a deductive method of reasoning and proper analysis, gives a concrete conclusion. An example below will help us visualize the core concept of both the type of evidences.

Scenario 1

Amira and Bryan are two people sitting in a pizza place. After some time, an unknown man comes inside the pizza place and fires a bullet, which goes straight in Amira’s head. Amira dies on the spot. Here in this case, Bryan has seen the unknown man fire a bullet which caused the death of Amira. So, Bryan is the eye witness or we can say that Bryan’s testimony can be regarded as direct evidence in the court of law.

Scenario 2

Ashley is alone in her house on a Sunday evening. Next morning on Monday, she is found dead. The servant told the police that he had last seen Ashley with her lover Ben on Sunday evening. On forensic examination, Ben’s fingerprints were found on the knife which was used to stab Ashley to death. On searching Ben’s residence, police found a shirt which had blood stain. Later, it was proved that the blood stain was of Ashley. Here, nobody has seen who killed Ashley. But the circumstances or facts of being last seen with Ben, Ben’s fingerprint of murder weapon and blood of Ashley of Ben’s shirt leads to a conclusion that Ben is the killer. These chain of facts or circumstances are called circumstantial evidence.

In the above scenarios we can see the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence. Now, the author would like to focus on the use of circumstantial evidences in criminal cases, their admissibility and weightage.

Admissibility and Weightage in Criminal Cases

Circumstantial evidence is the type of evidence based on inferences or facts and not merely on personal knowledge or observation. Hence, circumstantial evidence is admissible in both civil and criminal cases in Common Legal System.[1] In the case of Holland v. United States[2], the Supreme Court of the United States had observed that in the absence of direct evidence to prove a crime, the circumstantial evidence obtained could be used in the court as there is no distinct difference between direct and circumstantial evidence. The main jurisprudence behind this is that “the witness may lie but the circumstance will not.”[3]

However, there is a popular misconception that circumstantial evidence has less weightage or is not as valid as direct evidence. This is definitely not true. In fact, more number of criminal cases rely upon circumstantial evidence because it is difficult to gather direct evidence in criminal cases. Also, if we think critically, direct evidences are more vulnerable to fabrication, tampering and suppression whereas circumstantial evidences are more difficult to fabricate, suppress or destroy.

Throughout the world, there exist numerous criminal prosecutions which were based heavily on circumstantial evidence like State v. Santosh Kumar Singh[4], Uganda v. Albino Ojok[5], R. v. Taylor[6], R v. Teper[7], Sidhartha Vashisht v. State[8] and many more. So, it is clear that circumstantial evidence still stands as one of the best forms of evidence in the process of trial of a case. With that being said, the court should examine it really carefully, critically, logically and without any prejudice.

However, it has been well settled in a plethora of judgements that while circumstantial evidence alone and by itself is the only basis of conviction, the chain of events must be complete and there must not be any snap or breakage in the chain which points out the guilt of accused.[9] So, circumstantial evidence shall be backed up every time by the chain of events or facts and shall be proved thoroughly, or else circumstantial evidence alone does not carry any evidentiary value and cannot be a strong basis of conviction in criminal cases.

Risk Factor

Relying on circumstantial evidence in a criminal trial always comes with potential risk. It is a major principle of criminal law that even if a hundred criminals go free, no innocent shall be punished. Circumstantial evidence always comes up with a risk factor. It may give rise to more than one possible hypothesis or sometimes the chain of circumstantial evidence may not be conclusive. So, one mistake by the court on examining such inferences will lead an innocent person behind bars or even a death penalty.

Alongside, there is also a risk of criminal being set free due to lack of conclusive circumstantial evidences. When the circumstances are not conclusive enough and give rise to any other hypothesis which favors the accused then he/she is entitled to the benefit of doubt and hence is set free. This can be another potential risk while working with circumstantial evidence.

The Indian Evidence Act, 1872

In the Indian Evidence Act (1872) we can find the term “facts in issue” under Section 3. The expression “facts in issue” means and includes any fact from which, either by itself or in connection with other facts, the existence, non-existence, nature, or extent of any right, liability, or disability, asserted or denied in any suit or proceeding, necessarily follows.[10] This points out to the direct evidence.

The circumstantial evidence under the Indian Evidence Act comes under the ambit of “relevant facts”. It a well settled rule that every circumstantial evidence must be backed up by direct evidence. The same is also mentioned in the Evidence Act 1872. All the “relevant facts” must be supported by some of the oral or documentary evidences as mentioned in Section 3 of the aforementioned legislation. When these chain of “relevant facts” are backed up by some direct evidence and are kept in a series in such a way that it leads to satisfactory and logical conclusion, then these chain of facts can be regarded as circumstantial evidence in both civil and criminal cases.

Five Golden Principles

Keeping in mind the potential risks of circumstantial evidence, the Supreme Court of India laid down the five golden principles which constitute the panchsheel in the case of Sharad Birdhi Chand Sarda v. State Of Maharashtra.[11]

These Five Golden Principles were upheld in many other cases. The major jurisprudence behind these principles in the minimization of potential risk factors of an innocent being wrongly convicted or any criminal being set free due to lack of proper evidences.

In those 5 Golden Principles, it had been mentioned that the following undermentioned conditions must be fulfilled before a case against an accused can be said to be fully established:

1) The circumstances from which the conclusion of guilt is to be drawn should be fully established,

2) The facts so established should be consistent only with the hypothesis of the guilt of the accused, that is to say, they should not be explainable on any other hypothesis except that the accused is guilty,

3) The circumstances should be of a conclusive nature and tendency.

4) They should exclude every possible hypothesis except the one to be proved and

5) There must be a chain of evidence so complete as not to leave any reasonable ground for the conclusion consistent with the innocence of the accused and must show that in all human probability the act must have been done by the accused.

In a criminal case based on circumstantial evidence these 5 conditions must be satisfied by the prosecution to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The fulfillment of these principles minimize the potential risk of miscarriage of justice and also provide both the sides, the prosecution and the defendant, an opportunity to exercise their rights based on the principles of our Criminal Justice System.

Conclusion

Circumstantial evidence or indirect evidence is just a chain of facts connected to each other and backed up by some direct evidence. When these chains are viewed together by applying logic and reason, a satisfactory conclusion is obtained. Nowadays circumstantial evidences like fingerprints, DNA, blood stains, murder weapons, foot prints, tyre marks etc. are more reliable and are frequently used in criminal cases for conviction. To reiterate, circumstantial evidence is a better method of conviction only when it has sufficient backing. The cases which rest on circumstantial evidence are sensitive and the court shall decide on such cases with proper logic, reason and patience because the fate of accused depends on it.


[1] Sowed Juma Mayanja, ‘Circumstantial Evidence and Its Admissibility in Criminal Proceedings: A Comparative Analysis of the Common Law and Islamic Law Systems’, Journal of Law, Policy and Globalization, pg. 26 (vol. 67, 2017).

[2] 348 U.S. 121 (1954).

[3] Madho Singh And Etc. vs State Of Rajasthan, 2001 CriLJ 2159

[4] 2007 CriLJ 964.

[5] (1974) HCB 176.

[6] [1928] 21 Cr. App. R. 20.

[7] [1952] A.C. 489.

[8] 2001 CriLJ 2404.

[9] Gurpreet Singh v. State of Haryana (2002) 8 SCC 18.

[10] Section 3, Indian Evidence Act, 1872.

[11] AIR 1984 SC 1622

Ashutosh Pandey from National Law College, Nepal

editor: vatsla sood

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