Circumstantial Evidence

Circumstantial evidence is any evidence that requires some reasoning or inference in order to prove a fact. This type of evidence is sometimes referred to as “indirect evidence,” and it may have more than one explanation or lead to more than one conclusion. In many situations, more than one piece of circumstantial evidence may be used to draw the judge or jury to a specific conclusion. To explore this concept, consider the circumstantial evidence definition.

Definition of Circumstantial Evidence


  1. Proof of facts offered as evidence from which other facts may be inferred.


1730-1740       English Common Law

What is Circumstantial Evidence

Circumstantial evidence is evidence which strongly suggests something, but does not exactly prove it. Circumstantial evidence simply helps people draw inferences about a fact, or the events that took place. This type of evidence is, on its own, considered to be weak or ineffective, so it is used in conjunction with direct evidence in both criminal and civil cases. Whether or not the judge or jury makes the intended inference has a major impact on the outcome of the case.

For example:

Mary testifies in court that she saw Robert standing over a man with a bloody knife in his hand. Mary did not see Robert stab the victim, so she can only testify and describe what she saw. This circumstantial evidence is likely not enough by itself to convict Robert, so the prosecution provides other evidence which, when added to Mary’s testimony, leads the jury to the conclusion that Robert stabbed the victim.

Validity of Circumstantial Evidence

There are popular misconceptions surrounding the validity of circumstantial evidence, as many people believe it is not as convincing as direct evidence. In reality, circumstantial evidence is an important tool used by prosecutors to convict people. Circumstantial evidence, which can be derived from a variety of sources, can be used to lay a foundation of belief, and backed up by witness testimony and direct evidence for credibility.

Examples of Circumstantial Evidence

Nearly anything can be used as circumstantial evidence, so long as it helps create a picture of the incident or crime, leading the judge or jury to a valid conclusion. Facts that do not necessarily prove a defendant’s culpability, such as prior threats made to the victim, fingerprints found at the scene of the crime, testimony that a neighbor saw the defendant in the neighborhood, or the fact that the defendant was the beneficiary of the victim’s life insurance policy, are all circumstantial evidence. Even in the absence of an eye witness to the crime, these pieces of evidence, when taken together, certainly lead to the conclusion that the accused is guilty.

For example:

Mark and Bob get into a heated argument, during which Mark declares in front of a room full of people, that he wanted to kill Bob. A week later, Bob is found murdered in his back yard. Mark’s declaration is not direct evidence that he committed the crime, but it gives police a suspect.

How an individual treated or interacted with the victim before the crime is another point that may be used as circumstantial evidence.

For example:

Helen, one of Bob’s coworkers, has been romantically obsessed with Bob for about a year. A few months ago, she began sending him unwanted emails and text messages containing romantic messages, and then gifts began showing up at his home. Bob asked Helen to stop, but she only stopped talking to him at work. Recently, Bob told a friend that he had seen Helen at his softball games, and once saw her following him at the mall. This information is not direct evidence that Helen murdered Bob, but it gives police a second suspect to investigate.

In a civil lawsuit, circumstantial evidence serves the same purpose, to lead the judge or jury to a desired conclusion.

For example:

Leo has filed a civil lawsuit against Fred, claiming that Fred backed into his car in a parking lot, causing substantial damage. In court, Fred admits to being in the parking lot at the same time as Leo, but denies he hit anything, and there were no other witnesses to the incident. Leo presents photos of the parking lot, with a diagram of how the accident occurred, and shows photos of the damage to both vehicles, and points out the red paint transfer from his car to Leo’s bumper.

While none of this is direct evidence of Fred’s culpability in the incident, the circumstantial evidence leads the judge to believe it is more likely than not that there was an accident, and that it was Fred’s fault.

Infamous Conviction Based on Circumstantial Evidence

Scott Peterson Murder Conviction

Laci Peterson, a 27-year old mother-to-be, went missing from her Modesto, California home on Christmas Eve 2002. Husband Scott Peterson reported Lacy missing, telling police that she simply was nowhere to be found when he returned from a fishing trip that day. Days and weeks went by with no suspects. Friends and family said they didn’t believe Scott would murder his wife, but he eventually became a suspect, as he began giving police inconsistent information.

In January, police discovered that Scott had engaged in several affairs, the most recent being with a woman named Amber Frey. Frey approached police after learning Scott was married to the missing pregnant woman. Soon after, police taped phone calls between Frey and Scott in hopes they would hear a confession. The only thing they learned from the taped conversations was that Scott had planned on taking Frey out of the country on vacation, only days after Laci went missing.

Laci’s body, and the body of a fetus, were found in April of 2003, washed up on shore in Richmond, California. This was the same shoreline where Scott reported going fishing the day the Laci disappeared. After discovering the bodies, police searched Scott’s truck, his boat, and his home, as well as the area where they believed Laci’s body had been dumped, but nothing turned up.

On April 18, 2003, San Diego police arrested Scott. He had altered his looks and had belongings on him that led police to believe he would flee the country. The media closely followed the subsequent murder trial, in which there was virtually no direct evidence, but a long string of circumstantial evidence pointing to Scott Peterson’s guilt. Such evidence included the inconsistencies in Scott’s stories, his admitted affair with Frey, the fact that he sold Laci’s car soon after she disappeared, that he had expressed an interest in selling the house right away, and a 6-inch long, dark hair found on a pair of pliers located in his boat.

Although the defense attempted to explain away each piece of circumstantial evidence, the jury was convinced that Scott Peterson had murdered his wife and unborn child. Peterson received the death penalty, and awaits execution in California’s San Quentin prison.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.