indirect evidence

Circumstantial evidence

Circumstantial evidence is a collection of facts that, when considered together, can be used to infer a conclusion about something unknown. Circumstantial evidence is usually a theory, supported by a significant quantity of corroborating evidence. Corroboration is normally supplied by one or more expert witnesses who provide forensic evidence.

Compared to direct evidence

If a witness testifies that the defendant was seen entering a house, then screaming was heard, then the defendant was seen leaving, carrying a bloody knife, that is circumstantial evidence; if a witness testifies that the defendant was seen actually stabbing the victim, that is direct evidence.

Applications of circumstantial evidence

The two areas of importance are criminal and civil cases where direct evidence is lacking. Forensic evidence is often crucial in establishing the truth of a matter, especially when corroborated by independent tests. Expert evidence is usually needed to prove forensic conclusions.

Criminal Law

Circumstantial evidence is used in criminal courts to establish guilt or innocence through reasoning.

The distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence is important because, with the obvious exceptions (the immature, incompetent, or mentally ill), nearly all criminals are careful to not generate direct evidence, and try to avoid demonstrating criminal intent. Therefore, to prove the mens rea levels of "purposely" or "knowingly," the prosecution must usually resort to circumstantial evidence. The same goes for tortfeasors in tort law, if one needs to prove a high level of mens rea to obtain punitive damages.

One example of circumstantial evidence is the behavior of a person around the time of an alleged offense. If someone was charged with theft of money, and was then seen in a shopping spree purchasing expensive items, the shopping spree might be regarded as circumstantial evidence of the individual's guilt.

Forensic evidence

Other examples of circumstantial evidence are fingerprint, blood analysis or DNA analysis of the evidence found at the scene of a crime. These types of evidence may strongly point to a certain conclusion when taken into consideration with other facts, but if not directly witnessed by someone when the crime was committed, they are still considered to be circumstantial in nature. However, when proved by expert witnesses, they are usually sufficient to decide a case especially in the absence of any direct evidence. Owing to the development in forensic methods, old undecided case (or cold cases) are frequently resolved.

A popular misconception is that circumstantial evidence is less valid or less important than direct evidence. This is only partly true: direct evidence is generally considered more powerful, but successful criminal prosecutions often rely largely on circumstantial evidence, and civil charges are frequently based on circumstantial or indirect evidence. In practice, circumstantial evidence often has an advantage over direct evidence in that it is more difficult to suppress or fabricate. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate at times, and many persons have been convicted on the basis of perjured or otherwise mistaken testimony. Good strong circumstantial evidence can be a far more reliable basis on which to make a determination of guilt. It should be noted that circumstantial evidence normally requires a witness, such as the police officer who found the evidence, or an expert who examined it, to lay the foundation for its admission. This witness, sometimes known as the sponsor or the authenticating witness, is giving direct (eye-witness) testimony, and could present credibility problems in the same way that any eye witness does.

Much of the evidence against Timothy McVeigh was circumstantial, for example. Speaking about McVeigh's trial, University of Michigan law professor Robert Precht said, "Circumstantial evidence can be, and often is much more powerful than direct evidence". The recent Scott Peterson trial was based heavily on circumstantial evidence.

However, there is sometimes more than one logical conclusion inferable from the same set of circumstances. In cases where one conclusion implies a defendant's guilt and another their innocence, the 'benefit of the doubt' principle would apply. Indeed, if the circumstantial evidence suggests a possibility of innocence, the prosecution has the burden of disproving that possibility.

Civil law

Circumstantial evidence is also used in civil courts to establish or deny liability. It is usually the most common form of evidence, especially in product liability cases, and road traffic accidents for example. Forensic analysis of skid marks can frequently allow a reconstruction of the accident to be made. By measuring the length of such marks and using dynamic analysis of the car and road conditions at the time of the accident, it is usually found that drivers under-estimate the speed at which they were travelling. Forensic science and forensic engineering are both common methods used in civil cases, just as much as in criminal cases.

Other applications


Circumstantial evidence is not considered to be proof that something happened but it is often useful as a guide for further investigation.

An example from genealogy would be that if census records showed several people with the same surname lived at the same address, likely relationships could be inferred from age and gender.


Circumstantial evidence is normally used in science only to support other forms of evidence, so that you can figure out what happened.

Social Studies

Circumstantial evidence is used in social studies to reach logical conclusions where other forms of evidence do not exist.

See also

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