Unlike direct evidence, circumstantial evidence proves a fact not at face value, but by inference. For example, a robbery suspect's fingerprints on a stolen purse may infer that he or she is guilty because he or she must have handled the item.
Unfortunately, circumstantial evidence may be consistent with other facts other than the one being investigated. In the example above, it might be that the suspect's fingerprints are on the bag because he or she helped the plaintiff who was carrying too many bags on his or her way home.
For this reason, it's necessary for the jury to understand that they should only convict defendants using the circumstantial evidence if the evidence is not consistent with another fact that can set him or her free. State laws determine whether and when the court should inform the jury of this fact.
There are three main ways in which states handle this issue:
Instruction Issued In the Absence of Direct Evidence
In this case, the instruction is only given if all the evidence available is substantial. If there is even a shred of direct evidence, then the court ignores the instruction. This is to ensure that the jury only comes up with a guilty verdict if they are absolutely sure that the defendant is guilty.
Continuing with the example above, suppose that both the robbery suspect and the plaintiff agree that the suspect had helped to carry the bag. In this case, the circumstantial evidence (the fingerprint) may also mean that the defendant is innocent (he or she merely carried the bag). In such a case, and in the absence of other evidence, the jury is not expected to return a guilty verdict.
The Defendant Asks For It
In some states, it is the prerogative of the defendant to request the court to give the jury this instruction. However, courts in these states will only give the instruction if the prosecutor is relying on the evidence, whether partially or fully.
It Is the Courts Prerogative
Lastly, some states leave it all up to the court to decide. This is based on the rationale that each case is unique. As such, the court should analyze the issue at hand and determine whether the instruction is necessary or not.
Many people do not know about circumstantial evidence instruction, yet it can have a great impact on your case. For example, your defense may suffer if you are in a state that allows you to request for the instruction, and you fail to do it because it is your prerogative. This is one of the reasons you should always have a criminal attorney handle your criminal defense.