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Circumstantial Evidence

by Hans Bluedorn

If Constable Dobson arrives at a scene and sees an open safe, an upset chair, and a bloodstain on a villain’s shirt, he is looking at “circumstantial evidence.”

Circumstantial evidence refers to the circumstances surrounding a particular “mysterious” event. Circumstantial evidence isn’t direct evidence of what happened – like an eyewitness of a murder would be – but is indirect, we have to interpret it to make it useful.

In today’s story, Lord Laudmoore, is found dead in his study one morning. Lying next to him is a revolver with one chamber empty. Constable Dobson considers the gun to be circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence always requires us to use our thinking skills to figure out what it means. The revolver on the floor could mean some intruder shot Lord Laudmoore while he was sitting at his desk playing solitaire. Or, it could mean Lord Laudmoore was enjoying target practice with the figurines on the mantelpiece when he had a heart attack and fell over dead. However, if a bullet wound was found on Lord Laudmoore, corresponding to the caliber of the weapon, there would be further circumstantial evidence pointing to a murder.

Eyewitness reports are also circumstantial evidence if they are used to determine a circumstantial fact. If the study safe was broken into and a lot of money appeared to be missing, and if Seedy Sam, a local character with no money, was seen by witnesses the next day buying expensive items at a shopping mall, there would be circumstantial evidence, coming from witnesses, putting suspicion on Seedy Sam. Maybe he murdered Lord Laudmoore and took the money?

But since nobody SAW Seedy Sam murder Lord Laudmoore, the only evidence against him is circumstantial.

Possible or Impossible

*  Circumstantial evidence can show us whether an eyewitness’s story is possible or impossible:

PINKIE THE VAGRANT: “Yes, I know it was Seedy Sam because I saw ‘im. I was sleepin’ in the bushes, like I always do, I was, when I see this Seedy Sam come up with this long rifle in ’is ‘and. Well I sees ‘im come up to the window and then ‘e opens up and shoots see, then ‘e throws the gun in the bushes and runs ‘way.”

Circumstantial evidence gathered from the scene shows us that parts of Pinkie the Vagrant’s story are improbable, and other parts are impossible.

Pinkie says that the gun used was a rifle, but Constable Dobson knows this is impossible. He knows the bullet was from a handgun. Also, Dobson knows that the murder weapon was probably not thrown in the bushes because, after searching, he found nothing.

*  Circumstantial evidence can verify a witness’s story.

MARTHA THE HOUSEKEEPER: “I locked up the house at 9:30, last night. I am sure all the doors and windows were locked. After that, I went home.”

If after an examination, it was found that all the doors and windows WERE locked, and nothing had been broken into, we would have circumstantial evidence verifying what Martha the Housekeeper says. What she said is probably true.

As with any source of information, circumstantial evidence has its strengths and its weaknesses. For example, circumstantial evidence cannot lie to us, however, as with the revolver on the floor, we can interpret the evidence incorrectly. Discovering that all the doors of the house were locked probably means the housekeeper locked them, but it’s possible somebody else did.

YOUR TURN

Now it’s your turn to analyze some evidence. Constable Dobson has collected some circumstantial evidence. Read it and answer the questions below it. Type your answers below each question and send them back to me.

THE FIRST THREE PEOPLE WHO ANSWER ALL THE QUESTIONS CORRECTLY WILL RECEIVE A FREE COPY OF “THE FALLACY DETECTIVE” (OR A LOGIC LOOP COFFE MUG IF THEY ALREADY HAVE THE BOOK.)

1. Lord Laudmoore was found dead early one morning lying on his study floor, shot through the heart. Next to him was found a .38 caliber revolver with one chamber empty.

2. Joe, Lord Laudmoore’s chauffeur, who lives over the garage, reported the murder to the police.

3. After a corner’s examination it was determined that Lord Laudmoore was shot with a .38 caliber pistol or revolver bullet at close range. The shot resulted in instantaneous death around 1:30 in the morning.

4. The window of the study (which was on the second floor) was locked. The rest of the outside doors and windows were locked, and nothing had been broken into.

5. However, the study safe was broken into and was a mess.

6. One of the figurines on the fireplace mantelpiece was shattered and a .38 caliber bullet was found lodged in the wall behind. The fireplace is next to the door.

7. Some dust from the broken figurine was on Lord Laudmoore’s coat.

8. A private security camera, perched on the side of the house near the study window, recorded everything that happened outside the window. The footage showed nothing suspicious.

9. Footage from another camera near the front door shows a man identified as Dr. Radcliff leaving at 9:24pm and Martha the Housekeeper leaving at 9:31pm. The camera recorded no other events that night.

QUESTION 1: Below are some eyewitness accounts. Based only on the circumstantial evidence given, chose between these options:

1) Probably true, (evidence supports the statement.)

2) Possibly true, (evidence doesn’t support or deny the statement.)

3) Improbable, (evidence or common sense makes the statement unlikely.)

4) Impossible (evidence makes the statement extremely improbable.)

Write your answer below each account. You MUST cite evidence supporting your answer.

*  JOE THE CHAUFFEUR: “It was about 1:30 in the morning when I heard this very loud bang like a gun going off – very loud. I thought it was Sir Laudmoore shooting the figurines on his mantelpiece – as he sometimes does when he’s in an ill mood – so I didn’t think anymore of it until this morning.”

EXAMPLE ANSWER: Probably true. According to evidence #3, Lord Laudmoore was murdered at that time, this supports Joe’s statement that a shot was fired then.

*  SEEDY SAM: “No, I didn’t shoot Lord Laudmoore through the window.”

*  JOE THE CHAUFFEUR: “I was supposed to drive Lord Laudmoore somewhere at 8:00 this morning. I was waiting for him, but he never came. At 9:00 I unlocked the house and went in looking for him. I found him in his study just like you see him now. Then I called the police.”

*  DAVID McLURE: “Murdered, you say? That’s bad! I was invited to his house last evening to have dinner. I remember there was a man named Doctor Radcliff there as well. I don’t remember noticin’ anythin’ out of the ordinary. The doctor left around 9:30 and I left around 10:00. Lord Laudmoore let me out.”

*  JOE THE CHAUFFEUR: “Maybe a shot from the Lord’s gun ricocheted off the wall, bounced off the coal scooper, then came around and killed him? I’ve seen it happen in movies.”

*  DR RADCLIFF: “Yes, I had dinner there last night. It was t-bone steak, that was the main course I believe – prepared by Lord Laudmoore’s housekeeper, Martha. After dinner we talked for a while. A young man named David McLure was there as well. I guess Laudmoore had invited him. He seemed like a nice chap.”

*  JOE THE CHAUFFEUR (indicating the revolver found on the floor): “Yes, that is Lord Laudmoore’s revolver. He normally kept it in his desk drawer.”

*  MARTHA THE HOUSEKEEPER: “That figurine must have been broken last night. I remember I dusted them yesterday afternoon and none were broken then.”

QUESTION 2: What you think Constable Dobson should do next?

Send your answers back to me.

Copyright October 22, 2004, all rights reserved. 6835 views


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