What is circumstantial evidence, and how is it used in criminal cases? How is it defined by the courts?
In State v. Herndon, decided July 1st, 2020, the SC Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction because the trial court failed to give a “Logan charge” – a jury instruction that has been required since 2013 explaining to jurors what circumstantial evidence is and how it should be applied in a criminal case.
In most cases, a “Logan charge” must be given in criminal cases that are based on circumstantial evidence, and the trial court’s failure to charge the proper law as ordered by the SC Supreme Court will not be considered “harmless error.”
What is Circumstantial Evidence?
Circumstantial evidence is any evidence that implies a person’s guilt, as opposed to direct evidence which directly links a person to the crime charged.
Direct evidence is more persuasive than circumstantial evidence, and it is less likely to result in mistakes at trial. Examples of direct evidence may include:
- Eyewitness testimony;
- Video or audio evidence of the crime;
- Incriminating statements made by the defendant;
- Documents created by the defendant; or
- Fingerprints or other forensic evidence that connect the defendant to a crime scene.
Circumstantial evidence, on the other hand, only implies or suggests a defendant’s guilt. I have heard prosecutors explain it in several ways. For example, if it snows overnight and, in the morning, there are footsteps in the snow in a person’s yard, we can imply that someone was walking through the yard that night (okay, but who was walking through the yard?).
Or, if you hear thunder, you can imply that there was lightning somewhere nearby although no one saw the flash…
If a witness says that they saw the defendant repeatedly stabbing the victim in the kitchen, that is direct evidence that may be difficult to dispute (although it does not foreclose self-defense, a lying witness, or other potential defenses).
On the other hand, if the witness says that they saw the defendant running away from the crime scene shortly after the alleged victim was stabbed, but the witness did not see who stabbed the alleged victim, that is circumstantial evidence that is subject to multiple interpretations…
Should circumstantial evidence carry the same weight as direct evidence, despite the obvious potential for mistakes? Should the trial court caution jurors when the prosecution is attempting to send someone to prison for life while presenting only circumstantial evidence?
What is a Logan Charge?
In 2013, the SC Supreme Court held in State v. Logan that trial courts should give the following “circumstantial evidence charge, in addition to a proper reasonable doubt instruction, when so requested by a defendant:”
There are two types of evidence which are generally presented during a trial—direct evidence and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence directly proves the existence of a fact and does not require deduction. Circumstantial evidence is proof of a chain of facts and circumstances indicating the existence of a fact.
Crimes may be proven by circumstantial evidence. The law makes no distinction between the weight or value to be given to either direct or circumstantial evidence, however, to the extent the State relies on circumstantial evidence, [all of] the circumstances must be consistent with each other, and when taken together, point conclusively to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. If these circumstances merely portray the defendant’s behavior as suspicious, the proof has failed.
The State has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden rests with the State regardless of whether the State relies on direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, or some combination of the two.
In State v. Herndon, the SC Supreme Court reaffirmed that they meant what they said in Logan.
Herndon was charged with murder after she shot and killed her boyfriend – she claimed that the boyfriend was abusive, bipolar, not taking his medications, and that she was defending herself. Witnesses saw the boyfriend confront Herndon in her front yard but did not see the shooting because it happened inside the home.
The entire case was based on circumstantial evidence and, ironically, required the prosecution to argue against evidence that Herndon had been physically abused by the boyfriend and the evidence that she was acting in self-defense (prosecutors are supposed to help domestic violence victims, right?).
When Herndon asked the trial court to provide the Logan charge to the jurors, the trial judge inexplicably refused, choosing to read the pre-Logan charge to jurors instead. The State then argued on appeal that the trial court’s failure to follow the law was harmless error and the SC Court of Appeals “summarily accepted the State’s argument and affirmed.”
The SC Supreme Court disagreed, finding that it was not harmless error and that, as they said in Logan, the trial court should provide the Logan charge when the defendant requests it.
What Has Changed?
The jury instruction for circumstantial evidence in SC has changed several times, and a complete history can be found in the Logan opinion.
The short version is that the Logan charge requires circumstantial evidence to be consistent and to “point conclusively to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.” Anything less must result in an acquittal:
The Court reasoned that “evaluation of circumstantial evidence requires jurors to find that the proponent of the evidence has connected collateral facts in order to prove the proposition propounded—a process not required when evaluating direct evidence.” Id. The Court found that “defendants should not be restricted from requesting a jury charge that reflects the requisite connection of collateral facts necessary for a conviction.”
The trial court can give a pre-Logan circumstantial evidence charge, but not if the defendant objects.
What Does This Mean for Trial Practice?
In every criminal trial that relies on circumstantial evidence, the defense should request the Logan charge and object to any pre-Logan circumstantial evidence charges.
If the Court agrees, you can then tell the jurors that “the Court is going to tell you that circumstantial evidence must be consistent and must point conclusively to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Explain to jurors how the different pieces of circumstantial evidence are not consistent and do not conclusively point to guilt. Then you can argue, “As the Court will instruct you in a few moments, this failure of evidence means that you must acquit the defendant.”
If the Court refuses to give the Logan instruction, the defendant may then have grounds for an appeal…
Criminal Defense Lawyer in Horry County, SC
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