Evidence can be broadly divided into two sub- categories, direct and indirect circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence is evidence which explicitly establishes a fact or proves any assertions made by the party. Direct evidence does not require supplementation and does not require interference to form a connection between various facts.[i]
Illustration: A saw B shoot C in a park, subsequently C died. A is an eye witness of murder being committed. A being an eye witness to a crime would amount to direct evidence
In India, the term circumstantial evidence was first used by Sir James Stephen, stating circumstantial evidence to be facts that are relevant to the other fact, whose existence can prove by the existence of other fact.[ii] The concept of circumstantial evidence has evolved through the interplay between statutes and judicial interpretation. Circumstantial evidence, also known as indirect evidence, is an unrelated chain of events which when put together formulates circumstances leading to the commission of the crime and can be used to derive a conclusion.[iii] Information pertaining to the said chain of events in civil or criminal cases establishes the existence of a fact or any assertion a party seeks to prove. Circumstantial evidence is supported by a significant amount of corroboration. Convictions if based on circumstantial evidence require an unbreakable link between the criminal and the crime.[iv]
An example of circumstantial evidence would be, if police retrieves stolen goods from the house of a suspect, although it establishes that the suspect has stolen the good but does not necessarily establish guilty or the fact that he must have stolen the goods. Recovery of goods in the house of a suspect is a circumstantial evidence as the goods might be placed there by someone else, thus not establishing complete guilt but forming a chain of events. This would shift the burden of proof on the suspect to establish his innocence.
In the case of Holland v. United States, the US Supreme Court concluded, that fundamentally there is no intrinsic difference between direct evidence and circumstantial evidence.[v] In the case of Bodh Raj v. State of Jammu & Kashmir,[vi] 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 proved and impenetrable
- Circumstances should be conclusive in nature and should form a link between the criminal and commission of the offence
- Circumstances should retain moral certainty and there should be no scope for any other hypothesis.
- All other hypothesis should be excluded except that one that is required to be proved
In the case of Ashok Kumar v. State of Madhya Pradesh,[vii] the Supreme Court held that for circumstantial evidence to sustain conviction, the chain of events should be complete and should establish the guilt of the accused without probability of any other alternative. Further, the evidence should be cogently and firmly established.
Essentials for circumstantial evidence:
Circumstantial evidence can be sole basis for a conviction, if circumstances establish the chain of events leading to the guilt of the accused and commission of the crime without other possibilities.[viii] The Court should be satisfied that the said circumstances were clearly establishes and complete the chain of events and prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.[ix] Moreover, all the circumstances should indicate towards the guilt of the accused and should be inconsistent with his innocence.[x] The onus was on the prosecution to prove that the chain is complete and the infirmity of lacuna in prosecution cannot be cured by false defense or plea.[xi] The chain of events or circumstances should be complete without gaps to the extent no other conclusion or inference apart from the guilt of the accused can be drawn.[xii]In the case of Sidhartha Vashisht @ Manu Sharma v. State (Nct Of Delhi),[xiii] the court awarded him life imprisonment for the murder of Jessica Lal, on the grounds of circumstantial evidence. The conduct of the accused after the incident (absconding), ballistic report, presence at the scene of crime established by various testimonies and the circumstantial evidence connecting the vehicle and the cartridges during the commission of crime formed a chain of impenetrable evidence pointing towards the guilt of the accused. There is no inherent requirement to provide proof of motive, if the link between the accused and commission of the offence cannot be broken, it is immaterial to establish motive.[xiv]
Last seen doctrine:
However circumstances leading to “last seen together”, does not necessarily imply that it was the accused who has committed the crime. If the circumstances are limited to just “last seen together” without further corroboration, conviction cannot be based on the said assertion.[xv] The doctrine of “last seen together” shifts the onus onto the accused to establish his innocence.[xvi] Thus, last seen together is not a conclusive proof establishing guilt, it is imperative to look at surrounding circumstances such as victim relationship, history of hostility, weapon recovery, relationship between the victim and the accused among others.[xvii] The proximity between the time of death and last seen together is essential to conclude that the accused and deceased were last seen together without the probability of other persons coming in between exists.[xviii]
Circumstantial evidence as per Section 106:
Illustration– Body of B was found in the house of A. The onus is upon A to establish that even know body of the deceased was recovered from his house, his involvement in the crime is negligible. The inmates of the house are also required to provide an explanation. If the defendant fails to provide a viable explanation and fails to establish his innocence, this would form a chain of circumstantial evidence establishing the guilt of the accused. In the case of dowry death, the evidence provided by the victim’s family was considered reliable forming a chain of circumstances leading to the murder. Further, the body of the deceased was found in the river which was within the knowledge of the accused. Since the accused failed to establish his innocence as per Section 106, he was convicted under 302/149, 498-A, 201 IPC.[xxi]
Abnormal conduct of accused:
Conduct of the accused plays a vital role in corroborating or establishing circumstantial evidence. Conduct of the accused which is unnatural and abnormal, such as absconding, inability to provide explanation, inability to disclose location during the commission of offence, providing false alibis, secretive cremation of death body,[xxii] which destroys the presumption of innocence is a relevant factor in establishing guilt and building the chain of events.[xxiii]
Illustration– After the murder of B, the prime accused C went out of the state and subsequently disappeared to avoid arrest. The conduct of C is inconsistent with the conduct of an innocent man. Thus, increasing the presumption of guilt.
Offence of abetment of suicide:
The conduct of the in-laws and the husband if established as cruel and inhumane, the circumstances surrounding the suicide of the deceased can lead to conviction. In the case where, the in-laws constantly ill-treated the daughter –in-law and the husband was extremely abusive towards her, till the point she committed suicide. The circumstances prompting her to commit suicide, when established lead to the conviction of the accused.[xxiv]
Circumstantial Evidence also understood as indirect evidence cannot be assumed to be inferior to direct evidence. If the aforesaid conditions are fulfilled, conviction can be solely based on circumstantial evidence without direct evidence. Circumstantial requires a certain level of corroboration which can be established through the conduct of the accused and surrounding circumstance. The onus is upon the judiciary to critically analyze the evidence. Circumstantial Evidence is applied both in civil and criminal matters, however primarily in criminal matters.[xxv]
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are the drawbacks of relying on circumstantial evidence for conviction?
That in a case depending largely upon circumstantial evidence, there is always a danger that conjecture or suspicion may take the place of legal proof. The court must satisfy itself that various circumstances in the chain of events must be such as to rule out a reasonable likelihood of the innocence of the accused. If the chain is broken, none of the other circumstances can be relied upon to establish the guilt of the accused.
2. What are the various kinds of evidence can be used as corroboration for circumstantial evidence?
Opinion of an expert, handwriting, finger print, DNA test analysis, witness, discovery of an object connecting to the offence among others are used as corroboration.
3. Which form of evidence is superior direct or indirect evidence?
Judiciary has not given any conclusive answer to this question both the evidences, if they fulfill their respective said conditions are considered strong evidences capable of leading to conviction, however in circumstantial evidence the precautions taken by the prosecution and the Judges is higher.
[i] The Indian Evidence Act, 1892, §3,(India).
[ii] Soumya Chowdhary, Introduction to the law of evidence in India, LEGAL BITES (Feb 1,2019, 7:00 PM) https://www.legalbites.in/introduction-indian-evidence-act/.
[iii] Sudershani Ray, Circumstantial Evidence in India, LEGAL SERVICE INDIA,(Feb 1, 2019, 7:49 PM) http://www.legalserviceindia.com/article/l136-Circumstantial-Evidence.html.
[v] Holland v. United States, 1954, 348 U.S. 121
[vi] Bodh Raj v. State of Jammu & Kashmir, AIR 2002 SC 316
[vii] Ashok Kumar v. State Of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1989 SC 1890.
[viii] State of U.P. v. Ram Balak & Anr., 2008, 15 SCC 551.
[ix] Bhagat Ram v. State of Punjab, 1972, AIR 1502, 1972 SCR (3) 503.
[x] C. Chenga Reddy v. State of A.P, 1996 10 SCC 193.
[xi] Sharad birdichand- 1984 AIR 1622, 1985 SCR (1) 88.
[xiii] Sidhartha Vashisht alias Manu Sharma Vs. State of NCT of Delhi, 2010 (69) ACC 833 (SC)
[xiv] Bhimsingh Vs. State, 2015, 4 SCC 281.
[xv] State of Goa v. Pandurang Mohite, AIR 2009 SC 1066; Ramreddy Rajeshkhanna Reddy v. State of A.P., 2006 (10) SCC 172; State of U.P. v. Satish, 2005 (3) SCC 114
[xvi] Rohtas Kumar v. State of Haryana, 2013 (82) ACC 401 (SC)
[xvii] Ashok Vs. State of Maharashtra, 2015, 4 SCC 393, Ramesh Vs. State, 2014, 9 SCC 392
[xviii] Niranjan Panja Vs. State of W.B,2010, 6 SCC 525, Vithal Eknath Adlinge Vs. State of Maharashtra, AIR 2009 SC 2067
[xix] The Indian Evidence Act,1892, §106, (India)
[xx] Sandeep Vs. State of UP, 2012, 6 SCC 107
[xxi]Joshinder Yadav Vs. State of Bihar, (2014) 4 SCC 42
[xxii] Badan Sharma Vs. State of Bihar, AIR 2006 SC 2855
[xxiii] Sidhartha Vashisht alias Manu Sharma Vs. State of NCT of Delhi, 2010 (69) ACC 833 (SC)
[xxiv] State of W.B. Vs. Orilal Jaiswal AIR 1994 SC 1418
[xxv] Ratanlal & Dhirajlal, Indian Evidence Act, (21st Edition),Lexis Nexis Butterworths Wadhwa, Nagpur.