A Study on Circumstantial Evidence
Evidence is essentially required to solve a case by either convicting the guilty or exonerating
those who are falsely accused. According to Sir Blackstone,“Evidence signifies that which
demonstrates, makes clear or ascertain the truth of the facts or points in issue either on one
side or the other”. 1 A criminal proceeding concludes by either admitting direct evidence or
circumstantial evidence or both. Direct Evidence refers to evidence of witnesses who have
themselves seen the offense. There are few problems attached with eye-witnesses such as,
memory loss, individual factors like sensitivity, fear, stress etc., and influence of new
scenarios in the memory. Indirect evidence such as circumstantial evidence refers to
“evidence as to the existence of all collateral facts and circumstances from which the
commission of an offense by the accused can be reasonably inferred” 2 . Such evidence
provides a basis to infer a fact in issue.
Circumstantial evidence is defined under the Oxford English Dictionary as “indirect evidence
founded on circumstances which restrict the number of admissible hypothesis.” The study of
circumstantial evidence is crucial because it happens to be of prime importance when direct
evidence is absent and when the person who witnessed the offense cannot be traced.
However, if a case is solely based on circumstances the prosecution is made to present his
case beyond any reasonable doubt and the circumstances must be clear, indicating the guilt of
the person. 3
Interface between Forensic Science and Circumstantial Evidence
The interface between circumstantial evidence and forensic science includes tracing pieces of evidence like blood, fingerprint, footprint, equipment’s mark, DNA samples etc. Such evidence must be preserved carefully. Courts rely on corroborating evidence of such nature. However, it is important to note that circumstantial errors can occur due to the problematic nature of the evidence or by human negligence.
In the case of State of Punjab v. Bhura Singh 4 , the Supreme Court relied upon the evidence of eyewitnesses along with circumstantial evidence to convict the accused. Here, circumstantial evidence was relating to the expert examination which revealed that the gun, alleged to be the murder weapon was recently used and remains found in the crime scene also pointed towards the fact that the alleged gun was used. In rape and murder cases too, the prosecution uses circumstantial evidence based on forensic examination and is admitted in courts to establish the case against the accused. In Ganesh Lal v. State of Rajasthan 5, the crime weapon was stained with blood and pieces of human flesh, which on medical examination proved to be of the accused and the victim and the accused was having injuries on his persons. Admitting all these circumstances the court held that, “The availability of the above said pieces of incriminating circumstantial evidence and their having remained totally unexplained forge a complete chain of incriminating circumstantial evidence so as to fasten guilt uponthe accused beyond any reasonable doubt.” It is pertinent to note that forensically incorrect evidence, i.e., direct evidence inconsistent with that of circumstantial evidence cannot be taken into consideration to convict the accused.
Legality of Circumstantial Evidence
There has been contrasting view regarding the legality of circumstantial evidence. On one hand, guilt of the accused can be proved on the basis of available circumstantial evidence just like direct evidence. And on the other, it is noteworthy that not even the strongest circumstantial evidence alone could be admitted in the court and used to prove the guilt of the accused. The rationale behind this is to protect the accused from facing wrongful conviction at the cost of probabilistic nature of the circumstantial evidence. In Gagan Kanojia & Anr. v. State of Punjab6, the SC held that “The approach of the court should be an integrated one and not truncated or isolated. The court should use the yardstick of probability and appreciate the intrinsic value of the evidence brought on records and analyze and assess the same objectively.”
Laws and courts in U.S. view direct and circumstantial evidence in equal footing. In Holland v. United States7, the court opined that “that direct and circumstantial evidence are intrinsically no different. In both, the jury must use its experience with people and events in weighing the probabilities.” Few scholars like William Paley and Edmund Burke were of the opinion that circumstantial evidence is the best piece of evidence as circumstances cannot lie, unlike the testimony of witness.
In India, in the case of Sharad Birdhichand Sarda v. State of Maharashtra8, the SC laid down five golden principles (“Panchsheel”) of circumstantial evidence to be admitted as evidence in the court of law, namely, the circumstances when inferred establishes the guilt must be entirely established; the circumstances must support the hypothesis that the accused is guilty; conclusiveness of the circumstances to establish the guilt of the accused; there must not be any room for building any other hypothesis except from proving the guilt of the accused, and there must be a complete chain of events to establish the guilt without any reasonable ground9.
Moreover, circumstantial evidence is a crucial piece of evidence because basing the judgment on circumstantial evidence and inferring a fact from proved one involves application of reasoning and logic to reach the conclusion by the court of law as was observed by the SC in Tulshiram Sahadu & Anr. v. State of Maharashtra10. And in no circumstances can such deduction of courts can be considered false.
Conclusion and Suggestions
It is rightly said that “men may tell lies, but circumstances do not”. In the true spirit of the law, the view that circumstantial evidence cannot be taken into as evidence solely to convict an accused shall be eliminated from the Indian Judicial system, because it describes the whole chain of events and builds a logical scenario as to how, why and where a crime was committed. Moreover, the evidence speaks for itself, unlike direct evidence where the court needs to rely on a person’s testimony to conclude. It is a popular misconception that indirect evidence or circumstantial evidence has no validity when the case involves the presence of certain direct evidence. However, most successful criminal cases find their solution through
the admissibility of circumstantial evidence because it is very difficult to negate the foundation of circumstantial evidence unless it is fabricated or intentionally destroyed.
However, on the other hand, it can be argued that while admitting circumstances as evidence, if the court is not watchful and cautious it may lead to miscarriage of justice as there is a significant difference between the phrase “may be true” and “must be true”. Moreover, the researcher believes that the courts must take balanced view to draw a possibility of both situations; one which supports the prosecution’s story based on circumstantial evidence and another which lays the presumption of innocence of accused until proven guilty.
- T. Anderson, D. Schum & W. Twining, Analysis of Evidence, 40 (2nd ed. 1991).
- Eric Conrad, Seth Misenar & Joshua Felman, Chapter-10- Domain 9: Legal, Regulations, Investigations, and Compliance, CISSP Study Guide 389- 427 (2nd ed., 2012).
- Hanumanth Govind Nargundkar v. State of M.P., AIR 1952 SC 343.
- State of Punjab v. Bhura Singh, AIR 1985 SC 769.
- Ganesh Lal v. State of Rajasthan, (2002) 1 SCC 731.
- Gagan Kanojia & Anr. v. State of Punjab, (2006) 13 SCC 516.
- Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121,140(1954).
- Sharad v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1984 SC 1622.
- Shanti Devi v. State of Rajasthan, (CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 954 OF 2005), ¶ 8.
- Tulshiram Sahadu&Anr. v. State of Maharashtra, (2012) 10 SCC 373.