Many cases that come across my desk are considered purely “circumstantial evidence” cases.
In circumstantial evidence cases (such as constructive possession of cocaine in a car full of occupants without an accompanying admission or a sole fingerprint found at the crime scene of a burglary) the evidence presented by the State Attorney’s Office at trial provides only a basis for inference about the facts in dispute.
Inferences from only one piece of circumstantial evidence may not guarantee it’s accuracy and, as such, should be looked at with skepticism.
Circumstantial evidence cases are contrary to direct evidence cases where witness(es) testify as to how the crime took place (i.e. an eyewitness observed an individual breaking into his neighbor’s house and leaving with a television). Often times, direct evidence cases are buttressed with the help of corroborating (circumstantial) evidence.
During trial in every criminal case (circumstantial, or otherwise), at the close of the State’s case (and again at the close of the defense case), a (competent) criminal defense attorney will ask the Court to enter a judgment of acquittal as the evidence is not legally sufficient to support the jury’s verdict.
If the State has presented competent evidence to establish every element of the crime, then a judgment of acquittal is improper. If, however, at the close of the State’s case a prima facie inconsistency exists between the evidence as viewed most favorably to the State and the defense theory than a directed verdict is warranted.
If at the close of the Defendant’s case the Court finds that no reasonable jury could have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the State than a directed verdict is also warranted.
When reviewing a judgment of acquittal in a wholly circumstantial evidence case the Court must determine whether the State presented competent substantial evidence from which the jury could exclude every reasonable hypothesis except guilt. The State is not required to rebut conclusively every possible variation of events which could be inferred from the evidence, but only to introduce competent evidence which is inconsistent with the defendant’s theory of events.
When the State presents both direct and circumstantial evidence, this standard of review does not apply.
For example, in a case where law enforcement pulls over a vehicle (with five occupants) and finds a marijuana cigarette in a side compartment, without more (i.e. an admission of knowledge, dominion, and control), a directed verdict would (likely) be warranted as there is a reasonable hypothesis of innocence that the defendant was unaware of the cannabis – it belonged to one of the other occupants.
In cases dealing with wholly circumstantial evidence it is imperative to retain an experienced criminal defense lawyer familiar with the concept of judgment of acquittal. The criminal defense attorneys at Lyons, Snyder & Collin are familiar with these types of cases especially in matters dealing with drug crimes, sex crimes, and theft crimes.