This case review is based on the legal implications of circumstantial evidence.


Image source hereImage source here

By Kachana Katazo and Chimwemwe Tembo


This case review is based on the legal implications of circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence is indirect evidence that does not, on its face, prove a fact in issue but gives rise to a logical inference that the fact exists (see https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/circumstantial_evidence  accessed on 26th May 2024). The case at hand brings about certain negative implications about circumstantial evidence hence this paper will provide the facts, holding and implications of the case and a conclusion will be drawn up.

In the case of R v Exall (1866) 176 ER 850, Lord Pollock discusses the nature of circumstantial evidence by stating that they may be a combination of circumstances which, if each is considered on its own, may not raise a reasonable conviction or amount to a mere suspicion but which, if considered together, may create a strong conviction of guilt.

The court goes on to state, “It has been said that circumstantial evidence is to be considered as a chain and each piece of evidence as a link in the chain, but that is not so, for then, if any one link breaks, the chain will then fall. It is more like the case of a rope comprised of several cords. One stranded of the cord might be insufficient to sustain the weight. But three strands stranded together may be quite of sufficient strength”.


The appellant was convicted of murdering a woman during a sexual assault. The two had been drinking together at a bar and left together around midnight. The next day, the woman's partially undressed body was found with signs of struggle. The appellant was arrested with scratches on his neck and chest, which he attributed to flying iron pieces at work. However, the trial court rejected this explanation without evidence, assuming the appellant wore protective clothing at work, and instead inferred that the scratches came from the struggle with the deceased.


Circumstantial evidence has inherent weaknesses, as it does not provide direct proof of a fact in issue. Instead, it relies on indirect evidence from which inferences can be drawn. A trial judge must exercise caution when relying on circumstantial evidence to convict, ensuring that it is strong enough to rule out speculation and only permit an inference of guilt. In this case, the appellant's explanation for the scratches on his body was logical and unrebutted, making it an unjustified inference to assume the scratches resulted from committing the crime.


Circumstantial evidence is indirect proof that relies on inferences drawn from relevant facts, but it has inherent weaknesses, including the risk of erroneous inferences and the potential for defects such as falsehood, bias, or mistake. Trial judges must exercise caution when relying on circumstantial evidence, ensuring that it is strong enough to rule out speculation and permit only an inference of guilt.

A logical explanation offered by the accused must not be ignored, and the evidence must be carefully evaluated to establish a robust chain of circumstances that proves guilt beyond conjecture. In the present case, the court emphasized the importance of careful evaluation and the need for a strong chain of circumstances to prove guilt, while also cautioning against drawing erroneous inferences and neglecting logical explanations offered by the accused. The court's approach highlights the need for a rigorous and nuanced assessment of circumstantial evidence to ensure that justice is served.

The dangers of relying on circumstantial evidence are evident in cases where innocent individuals have been wrongly convicted. A single misinterpreted circumstance can lead to a chain of erroneous inferences, resulting in a miscarriage of justice. Therefore, it is crucial for trial judges to approach circumstantial evidence with caution and rigor, ensuring that the prosecution has presented a robust and convincing case.

Furthermore, the use of circumstantial evidence raises questions about the burden of proof in criminal trials. While the prosecution bears the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the reliance on circumstantial evidence can sometimes shift the burden to the accused to prove their innocence. This is a concerning trend, as it undermines the fundamental principle of presumed innocence until proven guilty.

Ultimately, the careful evaluation of circumstantial evidence is crucial to ensuring that justice is served. Trial judges must be mindful of the limitations and potential pitfalls of circumstantial evidence and approach each case with a critical and discerning mind-set. By doing so, they can help prevent wrongful convictions and uphold the integrity of the criminal justice system.


The case highlights the importance of rigorous scrutiny of circumstantial evidence and the need for the prosecution to present a robust case to secure a conviction and the decision serves as a safeguard against wrongful convictions and reinforces the high standard of proof required in criminal cases.  

This Article is Brought to you by:


(Bringing the Law to Your Comfort)

About the Authors:

Kachana Katazo is a third year student at the University of Zambia and serving as the Projects Manager of Legal Aid Initiative.

Chimwemwe Tembo is a second-year student at the University of Zambia and serving as a researcher at Legal Aid Initiative

Post a Comment