Circumstantial Evidence : Realm of Reality
Circumstantial evidence is used in criminal courts to decide the fate of accused by establishing guilt or innocence through reasoning. According to Benthem witnesses are the "eyes and ears of justice". But testimony of witnesses is not always credible; therefore, facts are provable not only by witnesses but also by circumstances.
In words of Stephen Leacock”,
“My evidence for this assertion is all indirect, it’s what we call circumstantial evidence the same the people are hang for……”. Giving the importance of circumstantial evidence in criminal cases and discussing the present role of circumstantial evidence, in nailing the two most leading cases, of Manu Sharma and Santosh Kumar, the same evidence that the trial court had dismissed as being insufficient or inadequate for conviction. Although it seems self-evident, that meaning of evidence must be articulated first, before the next steps in the analytical process may be pursued.
Historical Background of Circumstantial Evidence
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 used in criminal courts to establish guilt or innocence through reasoning. They also play an important role in civil courts to establish or or deny liability
Analysis of the term Evidence
Evidence" is the raw material which a judge or adjudicator uses to reach "findings of fact". The findings of fact that the evidence generates are - for all their flaws - "what happened" for all intents and purposes of the legal proceeding. If you do not agree with the fact-finding that has been made (or even if you know it to be wrong), recognize that the rules of evidence are the best rules that law know of to reach the necessary goal of fact-finding
“In its original sense the word ‘evidence’ signifies, the state of being evident i.e. plain, apparent or notorious. But…. It is applied to that which tends to render evidence or generate proof …. The fact sought to be proved is called the principal fact; the fact which tends to establish it, the evidentiary fact”
Analysis of the Term “Circumstantial Evidence”
Television show lawyers speak a lot about "circumstantial evidence". "Circumstantial evidence" however is not so much a type of evidence as it is a
logical principle of deduction. Deduction is reasoning from general known principles to a specific proposition
Circumstantial evidence is unrelated facts that, when considered together, can be used to infer a conclusion about something unknown. Information and testimony presented by a party in a civil or criminal action that permit conclusions that indirectly establish the existence or nonexistence of a fact or event that the party seeks to prove.
An example of circumstantial evidence is the behavior of a person around the time of an alleged offense. If someone were charged with theft of money, and were then seen in a shopping spree purchasing expensive items, the shopping spree might be regarded as circumstantial evidence of the individual's guilt. Similarly if a witness arrives at a crime scene seconds after hearing a gunshot to find someone standing over a corpse and holding a smoking pistol, the evidence is circumstantial, since the person may merely be a bystander who picked up the weapon after the killer dropped it. The popular notion that one cannot be convicted on circumstantial evidence is false. Most criminal convictions are based, at least in part, on circumstantial evidence that sufficiently links criminal and crime.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated in Holland v. United States .
that "circumstantial evidence is intrinsically no different from testimonial [direct] evidence" Thus, the distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence has little practical effect in the presentation or admissibility of evidence in trials. Similarly in India the two leading case of Priyadarshani Matoo and Jessica Lal were heavily based on circumstantial evidence.
Evidence as per English Law
According to Stephens the word “evidence” is used in three senses
1) words uttered, and thing exhibited in Court,
2) facts proved by those words or things , which are regarded as ground word of inference as to other facts not so proved, and
3) relevancy of a particular fact to matter under inquiry
Evidence as per Indian law
Section 3 of Indian Evidence Act 1872 defines evidence which is more definite meaning, viz, the first one. Evidence thus signifies only the instruments by means of which relevant facts are brought before the Court .Evidence is generally divided into three categories facts are brought before the Court. Evidence is generally divided into three categories:
1) oral or personal
2) documentary and,
3) material or real.
The definition of “evidence “must be read together with that of “proved”. The combine results of these two definition is that evidence under the Indian Evidence Act which is not only the medium of proof but there are in addition to this , number of other” matter” which the Courts has to take into consideration, when forming its conclusion. Thus the definition of “evidence” in the Indian evidence Act is incomplete and narrow.
In State Of Maharashtra v. Dr. Praful B. Desai, the Supreme Court has held that under section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act, besides oral and documentary evidence, electronic record can also be admitted as evidence. The Court further stated that evidence ruled in criminal matters could be by way of electronic records, which would also include videoconferencing ,Hence “ what is no evidence”
a) a confession or the statement of one accessed under Section 342,CrP.C
b) demeanor of witness(section 361, Cr.P.C ,O18,R,12,C.P.C)
c)local investigation or inspection (O.26,R,9);(O18,R18,C.P.C;sections 293 , 539B,CrP.C )
d) Facts judicially noticeable without proof (Section 56 ,57 Act)
e) Material objects(Section60)
Further coming to the subject, English text writers has divide evidence into
a) Direct evidence
b) Indirect and circumstantial evidence
In this sense direct evidence is the evidence is that which goes expressly to the very point in question and proves it, if believed without aid from inference or deductive reasoning, e.g., eye witness to a murder is direct evidence
Circumstantial evidence is also known as indirect evidence. Circumstantial evidence is usually a theory, supported by a significant quantity of corroborating evidence. The distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence is important because, with the obvious exceptions (the immature, incompetent, or ), 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.
Circumstantial Evidence: Soul Basis Of Conviction
Ordinarily circumstantial eidence cannot be regarded as direct evidence,and with this regard , there have been 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.
Thus the judiciary in following landmark judgment has ruled the important role played by circumstantial evidence which can later become the sole bases of conviction. In Ramawati Devi vs. State of Bihar wherein it has been held as follows:-
What evidentiary value or weight has to be attached to such statement, must necessarily depend on the facts and circumstances of each particular case. In a proper case, it may be permissible to convict a person only on the basis of a dying declaration in the light of the facts and circumstances of the case........”
As pointed out by Fazal Ali, J, in V.C. Shukla vs. State" in most cases it will be difficult to get direct evidence of the agreement, but a conspiracy can be inferred even from circumstances giving rise to a conclusive or irresistible inference of an agreement between two or more persons to commit an offence. As per Wadhwa, J. in Nalini's case
The well known rule governing circumstantial evidence is that each and every incriminating circumstance must be clearly established by reliable evidence and "the circumstances proved must form a chain of events from which the only irresistible conclusion about the guilt of the accused can be safely drawn and no other hypothesis against the guilt is possible.
Similarly in the famous case of Bodh Raj V. State of Jammu &Kashmir, Court held that circumstantial evidence can be a sole basis for conviction provided the conditions as stated below is fully staisfied.Condition are:
1) The circumstances from which guilt is established must be fully proved;
2) That all the facts must be consistent with the hypothesis of the guilt of the accussed;
3) That the circumstances must be of a conclusive nature and tendency ;
a. That the circumstances should, to a moral certanity , actually exclude every hypotheis expectthe one proposed to be proved.
Similary in Priyadharshani Matto case
'That I know the defendant is guilty, my hands are tied. As a judge, I can only go by the evidence provided by the investigative agencies.' These were the words of Additional Sessions Judge G P Thareja, who acquitted Santosh Kumar Singh, Delhi University law student who committed rape and murder of Priyadharshani Matto. But However the Delhi High court said that the overall analysis of the circumstances proved beyond doubt and the evidence is unimpeachable that Singh has committed rape and murder. "We are of the view to convict him (Singh) under section 302 (murder) and 376 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code," the Bench said. The Court observed that the trial court verdict was "perverse" and shocked the judicial conscience. The court said the evidence was incompatible with Singh's plea of innocence and "we held him guilty of the offence he committed".
Likewise in long-awaited State v Sidhartha Vashisht and Others- Held, this case is one that has shocked the confidence of the society in the criminal delivery system. Wrapping up the appeal in 25 hearings, a Bench comprising Justice R S Sodhi and Justice P K Bhasin, which had given death sentence to Santosh Kumar Singh in the Priyadarshni Mattoo case, also convicted Vikas Yadav, an accused in the Nitish Katara murder case, and Amardeep Singh Gill alias Tony, an executive in a multinational firm, for conspiracy and destruction of evidence.
"We have no hesitation in holding that Manu Sharma is guilty of an offence under Section 302 (murder) of IPC for having committed the murder of Jessica Lal ... As also under Section 27 of the Arms Act," the Bench said allowing the appeal of the Delhi Police.
"In the totality of circumstances adduced from material on record, the judgment under challenge appears to us to be an immature assessment
The whole discussion essentially brings us back to the fundamental question of whether Circumstantial evidence is a sole base of conviction or not. Undeniable the conclusion would be affirmative in true spirit .Undoubtedly; circumstantial evidence plays a pivotal role in criminal case. heavily based on circumstantial evidence. circumstantial evidence" which helped prosecution nail in various landmark cases mentioned abov was heavily based on circumstantial evidence.
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. Where the case is not based entirely or substantially on circumstantial evidence, a modified direction in respect of circumstantial evidence may be appropriate when summing-up in respect of an element of the offence which is based entirely or substantially on circumstantial evidence.
1) 2003(2)RCR (Criminal)SC771
2) 348 U.S. 121, 75 S. Ct. 127, 99 L. Ed. 150 
3) 1983) 1 SCC 211 (pp. 214-15, Para 71980 (2) SCC 665
4) 1999 (5) SCC 253], (supra) at page 516
5) AIR 2002 SC 316
6) 20/12/2006 (DELHI HIGH COURT)
7) Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, And Justice In A Southern Town (Paperback) by Pete Earley
8) Indian Evidence Law By Justice Muneer
The author can be reached at: email@example.com