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Circumstantial Evidence: Beyond Reasonable Doubt

Witnesses May Lie, But Circumstances Don't

Conferring to a basic principle of common law, criminal convictions can be obtained if the guilt of the defendant is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.[1] To prove guilt two kinds of evidence can be used, direct and circumstantial. Direct evidence gives proof of a fact in question without having to make assumptions or inferences. It leads to a definite conclusion and is based on personal knowledge and observation. Circumstantial evidence, on the other hand, indirectly supports a theory or proves a fact. It is based on inductive reasoning.[2]

According to the famous philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in a case of circumstantial evidence, two facts are required to be taken into deliberation
  1. The factum probandum, the principal fact the fact the existence of which is supposed or proposed to be proved the fact which is the subject of proof;

  2. The factum probans the evidentiary fact the fact from the existence of which that of the factum probandum is inferred.[3]
If the circumstantial evidence and the inferences drawn from it can prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the conviction is possible. To overcome the criminal jurisprudence principle of innocent until proven guilty, the standard of beyond reasonable doubt needs to be achieved. The evidence needs to establish that there exists no reasonable and logical explanation to the crime other than the one being presented against the defendant.[4] Evidence must be so complete as not to leave any reasonable ground that might prove innocence of the accused.[5]

In this paper, three cases from different common law countries are used to explain different aspects of circumstantial evidence. First and foremost, the Indian case of Priyadarshini Mattoo will emphasize that circumstances from which guilt is to be drawn must be firmly established. The Australian case, R v. Chamberlain, will discuss the process of understanding circumstantial evidence to form a judgment. The case of the Chillenden murders in the UK will focus upon the way circumstantial evidence can lead to wrongful convictions. In conclusion, the author will deliberate India's take on these three aspects.

State Through CBI V. Santosh Kumar Singh

In 1996, Priyadarshini Mattoo, a student of the Faculty of Law, Delhi University was brutally raped and murdered in a fit of rage by Santosh Kumar Singh, son of the then Inspector General Police (IGP), Jammu and Kashmir.[6] Since there were no eyewitnesses to the murder, the case of the prosecution depended solely on circumstantial evidence and was brought on record through oral as well as documentary evidence. The trial court in Delhi acquitted Singh. The judge had emphasized that a mishandled and inadequate investigation by the Delhi Police meant that though he knew Singh is the man who committed the crime, he was forced to acquit him. [7]

The chain of circumstances was checked by all three courts and some circumstances were in bought into question. On one hand, the trial court despite holding most of the crucial circumstances in favor of the prosecution acquitted the accused and mauled justice. On the other hand, after dealing with each piece of evidence separately and together, the High Court and Supreme Court believed the chain of circumstances in this case to be so complete that it could only lead to the conclusion of the accused guilt. They held the circumstantial evidence to be absolutely inconsistent and incompatible with the innocence of the accused.

The Supreme Court commuted Singh's sentence from the death penalty to one of life because of his youth and the fact that he got married after his acquittal. His sentence was reduced merely on the basis of sympathy, even though all the circumstantial evidence was proved firmly against him.[8] In my opinion, the chain of evidence was so complete that there was no explanation for the unfortunate event other than the guilt of the accused. He should have been rewarded with the death penalty; there should be no place for sympathy for criminals like Singh in a courtroom.

Chamberlain V. The Queen

In 1980, Alice Lynn Chamberlain was charged with murdering her nine-week-old daughter Azaria while camping at Ayers Rock (Uluru) in the Northern Territory. Michel Chamberlain, her husband was also charged as an accessory after the fact. It was alleged that the baby was taken by Ms. Chamberlain from the campsite back to their car where her throat was cut and her body disposed of. Disputing this, Ms. Chamberlain claimed that a dingo had taken her baby. While the baby's body was never recovered, her jumpsuit and vest were found which acted as crucial pieces of evidence.

The question of law that arose, in this case, was whether while considering circumstantial evidence, each and every circumstance from which inference has to be drawn must itself be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Does the proper method of approach to the facts involve separate consideration of all items of evidence and does an item of evidence have to be eliminated if the jury/judge is not satisfied with it beyond a reasonable doubt? [9] This view is supported in an article on "Circumstantial Evidence" by Mr. T. C. Brennan K.C where he while discussing a particular criminal trial wrote,

Mr. Acting Justice Dixon (as he then was), told the jury that the proper method of approach to the different facts was to take each one separately, and to ask are we satisfied beyond reasonable doubt about (1)? If yes, continued his Honour, 'put it on one side for further consideration with the other facts; if no, put it out of your mind altogether. Then go on to consider (2) in the same way. [10]

The five-judge bench in this case dissented from this opinion. According to them, this is not the general rule; instead, the jury should consider all facts together at the conclusion of the case. Drawing support from Reg v. Beble [11] they concluded that the jury should look at all the facts at the end of the trial. One circumstance must not be rejected because when considered solely, no inference of guilt can be drawn from it. The reason behind this is that some items of evidence that may not prove facts beyond a reasonable doubt alone may do so when looked at in light of corroborating evidence or a combination of facts. Every piece of evidence has to be looked at in light of the entire case and inference of guilt must be drawn from a combination of all facts.[12]

They also concluded that a fact should not be used as a basis for an inference of guilt unless the existence of the fact is proved or satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt. As the Crown's counsel suggested, while the case was circumstantial and relied on half a dozen strands of evidence, when taken together they had the strength of a rope. [13]

The Chillenden Murders

Reliance on circumstantial evidence also has its drawbacks. Lin Russell, her daughter Megan, and their dog Lucy were brutally murdered and an attempt to murder was made on nine-year-old Josie in Chillenden, the UK back in 1996. They were tied up and brutally beaten with a hammer. A year later, as a result of one of the biggest manhunts undertaken by British police, Michael Stone, a local heroin addict, and petty criminal, was arrested, charged, and sentenced to life imprisonment. 24 years later, he has maintained the stance of his innocence and unanswered questions over his conviction persist.[14]

Circumstantial evidence becomes a problem where available physical evidence either points away from the person charged with the crime, or where the lack of physical evidence actually contradicts the hypothesis presented by the prosecution.[15] It may lead to wrongful convictions at times. Michael Stone was convicted solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence and one unreliable, a convicted criminal and a self-confessed liar's testimony. The criminal in the cell next to him alleged that Michael had confessed to him through a hot pipe connecting the two cells, the details of how he had murdered the Russells'.

This criminal, Damien Daley was a self-confessed liar. In his own words, he said I am a crook and I lie to get by in life.[16]

Few years after Stone's conviction, a serial killer Levi Bellfield confessed to some of his crimes. This bought to attention all the other crimes he may have committed. Factual similarity renewed the interest in the Chillenden murders.[17]

The point that arises is that in a case of circumstantial evidence, one can never be one hundred percent sure. One can be assured beyond a reasonable doubt, but never as completely as one would be in case of direct evidence. Some doubt may always remain.

For instance, in the author's opinion, supported by academician's opinions, there is a severe lack of physical evidence to corroborate the prosecution's hypothesis in this case. Depending on the material available, it can safely be presumed that the media agrees with this. But the way the case was decided by the judges is different. Interpretation of the evidence has become even more questionable since Levi Bellfield's confession.[18]

What actually happened on that unfortunate day will possibly always remain a secret. However, to achieve the lengths of justice, circumstantial evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt has to be considered.

India's Take On Circumstantial Evidence

In India, it is settled law that in a case where evidence is circumstantial, the conclusion of guilt to be drawn has to be fully established; and the circumstances so established must be conclusive and consistent only with the hypothesis of the guilt of the accused. No other hypothesis or theory should be able to logically explain the circumstances of the case. The chain of evidence must be so complete that the innocence of the accused is unbelievable.[19]

The onus to prove the completeness of the chain of events is on the prosecution. However, the onus to prove that the accused had nothing to do with the crime still relies upon the accused as per Section 106 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1892which states that when a person does an act with some intention other than that which the character and circumstances of the act suggest, the burden of proving that intention is upon him. [20]

In the case of Bodh Raj v. State of Jammu & Kashmir,[21] the Court held that that for a conviction to be solely based on circumstantial evidence following conditions are required to be met:
  • Circumstances from which guilt is established are required to be fully proved and must be impenetrable;
  • Circumstances should be conclusive in nature and tendency;
  • Circumstances should, to a moral certainty, ensure that there is no scope for any other hypothesis to be true; and
  • All other hypothesis should be excluded except that one that proves the guilt of the accused

Legally established circumstances can form the basis of conviction but the graver the crime is, the greater should be the securitization of the evidence lest suspicion takes the place of proof. Few very important grounds while basing a case on circumstantial evidence are also the last seen doctrine and abnormal conduct of the accused. According to the last seen doctrine if facts only prove that the victim and accused were 'last seen together', and alone it is not conclusive enough to base a conviction; further corroboration is necessary.

However, this doctrine shifts the onus on the accused to prove that they were not involved in the alleged crime. The conduct of the accused is vital in the establishment of circumstantial evidence. Certain conducts have the impact of negating the innocence of the accused. Examples of such unnatural conduct are absconding, providing false alibis, inability to provide a reasonable explanation to the situation at hand etcetera. [22]

India's outlook on circumstantial evidence would be incomplete without the mention of The Jessica Lal case.[23] The decision of this case was based on circumstantial evidence after witnesses turned hostile. Manu Sharma was awarded imprisonment for life on the basis of a chain of circumstantial evidence that proved his guilt. His presence at the scene of the crime was proven via witness testimonies. This was coupled with the fact that he absconded thus conducted himself unnaturally and negated the presumption of his innocence.

Also, while the gun which was used as the murder weapon was never recovered, it was proven that the cartridges found at the scene of the crime did, in fact, come from the gun that belonged to the accused. These strands of evidence created a rope so tight that it was impenetrable thus showcasing India's take on circumstantial evidence-based convictions.[24]

  1. Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 802-03 (1952) (dissenting opinion)
  2. Yeshion, Ted, "The Myths of Circumstantial Evidence", Forensic Teacher,
  3. Bentham J, Rationale of Judicial Evidence, 5 Volumes (1828), Vol 3, Garland, New York, 1973, Page 2-5, 248;
  4. Supra, Note 2
  5. Dhananjoy Chatterjee vs State Of W.B, (1994) SCR (1) 37, 1994 SCC (2) 220, Para 7
  6. Kaul, Aditya Raj, "Did We Fail Priyadarshini Mattoo and Make Delhi the Rape Capital?" The Quint, January 23, 2018,
  7. State (Through CBI) vs Santosh Kumar Singh, 2007 CRL 964, 133 (2006) DLT 393
  8. Santosh Kumar Singh vs State Th. CBI on 6 October, 2010
  9. Chamberlain v. The Queen, (1984) 153 CLR 521
  10. Brennan, T.C. "Circumstantial Evidence" Australian Law Journal 4 (1930), Page 106
  11. Reg. v. Beble, (1979) Od R 278, Page 289
  12. Supra, Note 7, Page 536
  13. Case Study, Right to Appeal, Australian Human Rights Commission,
  14. The Chillenden Murders." Western Sydney University, October 13, 2017,
  15. Circumstantial Evidence: Making a Murderer English Style." The Justice Gap, February 17, 2016,
  16. Gillan, A. (2001, September 20). Stone trial main witness admits he is habitual liar,
  17. Shehab Khan @ShehabKhan. (2017, November 29). Serial killer Levi Bellfield gives 'very detailed confession' of murdering Lin and Megan Russell in 1996,
  18. Henneberg, Marika, "Michael Stone and the Chillenden Murders" The Justice Gap, February 2016,
  19. Ashok Kumar v. State Of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1989 SC 1890.
  20. The Indian Evidence Act, 1892, Section 106
  21. Bodh Raj v. State of Jammu & Kashmir, AIR 2002 SC 316
  22. Anushka, Circumstantial Evidence.Law Times Journal, March 27, 2019.
  23. Sidhartha Vashisht alias Manu Sharma Vs. State of NCT of Delhi, 2010 (69) ACC 833 (SC)
  24. Supra, Note 22

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