Texas State and Federal Criminal Appeals: What Is Circumstantial Evidence, And Can It Support a Criminal Conviction?

This blog will discuss direct and circumstantial evidence and how experienced state and federal criminal defense lawyers can use and attack them.

In popular culture, the term “circumstantial evidence” tends to be associated with questionable or weak evidence.  Is this true in courts in state and federal criminal cases in Texas? The answer is that the law generally does not distinguish between direct and circumstantial evidence as far as whether the evidence is admissible in court or how much weight it should be given.

“Direct” evidence means evidence that directly proves something.  For example, an eye witness who testifies that she saw the defendant rob the bank is providing direct evidence.  Similarly, a security camera video that shows the defendant robbing the bank is also direct evidence. In both of these examples, the evidence directly proves that the defendant robbed the bank.

Circumstantial evidence requires additional reasoning or logic to show that something happened.  The classic example is “snow on the ground.” If you wake up in the morning, look outside, and see that snow is covering the ground everywhere, but there was not snow on the ground when you went to bed, this is circumstantial evidence that it snowed during the night.  If you actually saw snow falling, you could testify that you saw snow falling, and this would be direct evidence that snow fell. But if you did not actually see snow falling, the fact that there was no snow before, and snow in the morning, is an extremely strong indication that snow fell during the night.

DNA evidence is another example of circumstantial evidence that can be very powerful or very weak.  DNA evidence involves comparing DNA found somewhere against a known sample of someone’s DNA. If they match, it is almost certain that the found DNA was the person’s DNA.  If a person’s DNA is found at a crime scene, this might be very strong evidence that the person committed the crime. For example, if a suspect in a murder case claims he did not know the victim and had never been to the person’s house, but the suspect’s DNA is in the house, this could be strong proof that the suspect committed the crime.  But if the suspect is a husband accused of killing his wife, and if the husband lived in the house, the fact that his DNA was found in the house may prove nothing.

The point is that circumstantial evidence can be strong or weak depending on the specific facts of the case.  

On the other hand, direct evidence is not always strong.  We know, for example, that eye witness testimony can be highly unreliable if the witness is describing a sudden and unexpected event.  Many studies have shown this, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has even recognized that an expert witness may be allowed to testify about how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be.  

In Texas state and federal courts, the law does not require direct evidence to prove guilt.  Circumstantial evidence alone can be enough. In appeals in both Texas state and federal criminal cases, the Jackson v. Virginia standard applies.  The Jackson standard says that all of the evidence in the case, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, must be enough so that a reasonable person could find that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Courts of appeal do not divide the evidence into the categories of direct and circumstantial evidence when considering the sufficiency of the evidence. Instead, they consider the evidence as a whole in light of all of the facts of the case to see whether it meets the standard.

The Jackson standard can be very difficult to apply unless you are an experienced criminal appeals lawyer.  When challenging the sufficiency of the evidence, a criminal appeals lawyer in Texas must be able to explain in writing to a court of appeals why all of the evidence at trial would not be enough to meet this standard.  This can be difficult to do, but it is not always impossible.

If you or a loved one has recently been convicted of a crime in a Texas state court or a federal court, do not hesitate to consult with an experienced and skilled Texas criminal appeals lawyer at the Law Office of John M. Helms in Dallas.  There are strict time limits for appeals, and you may not be able to appeal if you wait too long.

Dallas Criminal Appeals Attorney John M. Helms

T: 214-666-8010