Can You Be Convicted of a Crime Based on Circumstantial Evidence?

by LegalFix
Posted: July 7, 2023
admissible evidence

Chances are you’ve heard the term “circumstantial evidence” somewhere. Whether it was in your favorite police show or in a real-life court case, defense attorneys love to point out when the evidence presented in a case is circumstantial and suggest jurors should disregard or discount it. But what makes circumstantial evidence weaker than other kinds of proof, and can it form the basis of a conviction? 

What Is Circumstantial Evidence?

In legal proceedings, circumstantial evidence refers to any evidence that might suggest a conclusion rather than directly proving anything. Common examples of circumstantial evidence include things such as timing, the motive or opportunity to commit a crime, or anything calling a defendant’s character into question. 

In contrast, “direct evidence” is something that links someone to a crime. This can include DNA material, fingerprints, photographs or video of a person committing the crime, geolocation data, eyewitness accounts, and digital records of illegal activity. 

Can You Be Convicted Based on Circumstantial Evidence?

In any court case, evidence is a cornerstone in determining the verdict. Since our country’s earliest days, American law has relied on the concept of “proof beyond reasonable doubt” in order to convict someone of a crime. You may be familiar with the idea that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. While not formally codified in the Constitution, this presumption of innocence is understood to be a reflection of the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. 

The first legal precedent for the presumption of innocence for those accused of crimes came in 1895. What may surprise you is that the precedent for proof beyond reasonable doubt came much more recently. 

In the landmark 1970 decision In re Winship (397 U.S. 358), the United States Supreme Court ruled that "the Due Process clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged."

Ultimately, whether or not you can be convicted of a crime comes down to the decision made by a jury based on all evidence presented in your case. In federal courts (as opposed to state courts), whether something can be mentioned in court is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence

While direct evidence is often stronger than circumstantial evidence, both are generally admissible in court and jurors frequently find circumstantial evidence persuasive. So while circumstantial evidence can’t inherently prove your innocence or guilt, attorneys can include it to paint a picture vivid enough to overcome the ‘burden of proof’ or create reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors, for example. 

A single piece of evidence, whether circumstantial or direct, may not be enough to demonstrate guilt alone. But if multiple pieces of evidence come together sufficiently to convince a jury of your guilt, you can still be convicted.