Arjuna Nagendran

Doctor,

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Is circumstantial evidence enough for conviction?

The talk tagged marks an interesting point - we are increasingly realising the fallibility in being able to trust our own memories - this is particularly disturbing in terms of the reliability we place on witness accounts.

The question is.. if we have to accept that the human memory does employ reconstructive memory, even just some of the time, is circumstantial evidence really enough to convict someone?

Or does this demand that, in pursuit of innocent until proven guilty, we must
move to a system where more than circumstantial evidence is required to succesfully prove guilt?

Interested for peoples' thoughts on this one!

  • Sep 22 2012: Untill you can be sure that the crime could have only been commited by the person(s) on trial you cannot convict anyone.

    If in some way a ton of circumstantial evidence can single out a single person you could say that 'beyond any doubt' he committed the crime. However untill then you cannot.
    So in theory yes you could convict someone based on circumstantial evidence however it would require some really strong circumstances for that to happen.
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      Sep 23 2012: Law doesn't require that you "be sure" or "beyond ANY doubt". It only requires "beyond REASONABLE doubt".

      And that's the problem. Define "reasonable". The witnesses in the referenced TED talk were all probably "sure" and "beyond doubt" that what they reported was correct and factual. They were wrong.

      The issue is balancing the use of circumstantial evidence to ensure the doubt it raises remains reasonable, regardless of how the people presenting the evidence may believe it is reasonable or even factual.
      • Sep 23 2012: What I gave was my opinion on how it should work. Sorry if that wasn't clear.
  • Sep 24 2012: Circumstantial evidence is typically more reliable than direct evidence. Unfortunately, most people don't understand what circumstantial evidence is. Circumstantial evidence is evidence from which another fact can be inferred. For instance, DNA evidence is circumstantial evidence. If a person's DNA is found at the crime scene (more precisely, if DNA matching a person's DNA profile is found at the crime scene) then we can infer that the person (or someone with his identical DNA) was present at some point. Fingerprints are the same -- they tell us that someone touched something. We can then infer that the person with those prints must have been present, or must have held the weapon, or some other fact in controversy. Most scientific evidence is circumstantial. In Mr. Fraser's example, information about the lighting at the scene would be circumstantial evidence, from which we can infer whether the eyewitnesses are likely to be reliable or unreliable.

    Direct evidence is evidence that directly proves a fact without the need to draw an inference of another fact. For example, eyewitness testimony is direct evidence. It is a person saying "that's the man who robbed me." No inference is required, you either trust it or you don't. Likewise, a confession is direct evidence. The evidence that convicted Mr. Carrillo in the case under discussion was direct evidence -- eyewitnesses. Had there been gunshot residue on Mr. Carrillo's hands shortly after the crime, or the correct make and caliber ammunition hidden under his mattress, that would have been circumstantial evidence.

    I realize the original question assumes that the term "circumstantial evidence" means some sort of weaker or less reliable evidence. But to be precise, I think the correct terminology is important.
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    Sep 24 2012: Circumstantial doesn't indicate a set value. It is merely stating the nature of said evidence. Circumstantial evidence can be very powerful in the court-room.

    However, I do agree that we should pay close attention to the kind of circumstance we derive evidence from.
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    Sep 22 2012: It could depend on the criminal in question. Let's say you see a highly respected, City counselor touching his 13 year old daughter in the hallway, out of sight of others, just as you turn the corner. You see her flinch. Your eyes meet with the perp's. He knows you saw, but it's all circumstantial and he smiles knowingly. His daughter seizes on that moment to twist away and run down the hall. The Perp adjusts his coat, continues to smile and turns towards his office. What should you do? Should he be arrested on your word alone?

    Add to this the fact someone is going around town hijacking little girls around the age of 13 and their bodies are being found in another part of the state and the profile is the same, but the evidence file is empty. It's all circumstantial really.

    As a citizen what is your responsibility?
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    Sep 22 2012: Quoted from the following source: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Circumstantial+Evidence

    "Circumstantial evidence is most often employed in criminal trials...Books, movies, and television often perpetuate the belief that circumstantial evidence may not be used to convict a criminal of a crime. But this view is incorrect. In many cases, circumstantial evidence is the only evidence linking an accused to a crime; direct evidence may simply not exist. As a result, the jury may have only circumstantial evidence to consider in determining whether to convict or acquit a person charged with a crime. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that "circumstantial evidence is intrinsically no different from testimonial [direct] evidence"(Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 75 S. Ct. 127, 99 L. Ed. 150 [1954]). Thus, the distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence has little practical effect in the presentation or admissibility of evidence in trials."

    To me, the question revolves around the quantity and QUALITY of the circumstantial evidence. The video by Scott Frasier indicates that not ALL circumstantial evidence can be trusted, based on limitations of Humans to "collect" and "interpret" that evidence and then present it as a true "fact".

    But as long as there may be crimes commited where no direct evidence is available, we have to rely on a system that will allow QUALITY circumstantial evidence to be used to identify criminal acts.

    That is the whole issue. It's not a perfect system. Our goal should be not to ELIMINATE circumstantial evidence, but to make sure it is not ABUSED to the detriment of convicting an innocent person.
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    Sep 21 2012: Can we examine a thought experiment?
    A person of good health and sound mind is held captive in a room. The room has absolutely nothing, no furniture, no belongings of the person, just nothing. There is a single door of the room. Another person enters the room and leaves it after couple of minutes.
    Observation: The first person is found dead, his neck broken.
    What will be the conclusion of the circumstances of his death? Please note that there is no eye witness of the event of this person's death.
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      Sep 21 2012: Well your mind naturally assumes that the temporal association means that the person who entered and left before the other person is found dead is likely to have been the cause of his death by breaking his neck.

      Of course it could also be suicide, breaking his neck in the process?
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        Sep 22 2012: Provided that it is physiologically possible to commit suicide by breaking one's own neck.
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    Sep 20 2012: I dont think conviction should be based on circumstatial evidence alone; such evidence should be reasons for further questions and investigation.
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    Gail .

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    Sep 20 2012: Taken to its extreme, this would lead to people killing off the witnesses. Kind of like an invitation.

    But I do think that there has to be a LOT of, or irrefutable, evidence before conviction based on circumstantial evidence.
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    Sep 19 2012: In this case there were multiple witnesses, coming up with the same story, based on not just memory of a face, but also their supposed memory of the environment. I presume this would likely also fool a lie detector as it is an unintentional falsehood.

    Isn't that the nature of circumstantial evidence though? - ultimately it is all potentially flawed.
    So we're then assuming that if you get enough unknowns, they are likely enough to be a known? Pretty tough to get behind if you're the guy that goes down for all those years!
    • Sep 19 2012: In court you have to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, not beyond all dobut, otherwise you would never get a conviction. A pile of circumstantial evidence could eventually be enough to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
  • Sep 19 2012: Circumstantial evidence with the memory of a witness being the prime evidence? I think that used to be enough in the past, but not any longer, at least it shouldn't be. Still, I think it is possible to get a conviction using circumstantial evidence only, as long as there is enough of it.