The case against Aaron Hernandez is circumstantial; sometimes in the minds of the public this makes for a weaker case. While circumstantial evidence is viewed as lesser evidence by the public and likely by a jury, under the law, the two forms of evidence direct and circumstantial are viewed as the same, one form of evidence is not better than the other and either type of evidence can support a conviction.
At the end of the case, the judge will give the jury instructions on the definition and application of circumstantial evidence that will help the jurors understand how they should weight the evidence and the language of this instruction is one of the many important aspects of the case.
The judge will explain the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence is evidence where a witness cannot testify directly about a fact, but the witness presents evidence of other facts that the jury may draw reasonable inferences from.
Mail Carrier Analogy Often Used in Massachusetts Trials
In Massachusetts judges often use the mailman analogy to help jurors understand the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence:
“Your daughter might tell you one morning that she sees the mailman at your mailbox. That is direct evidence that the mailman has been to your house. On the other hand, she might tell you only that she sees mail in the mailbox. That is circumstantial evidence that the mailman has been there; no one has seen him, but you can reasonably infer that he has been there since there is mail in the box.
While this instruction is part of the model instruction, the defense should probably object to it as it allows proof based on assumptions and does not apply in this case. The mailbox analogy often used unfairly overstates the persuasiveness of circumstantial evidence because only the mail carrier delivers the mail and the mail in the box in marked with a stamp from the post office. The circumstantial evidence that the mail carrier must have put the mail there is not based on the chance that something is in the mailbox.
Other States use different examples of circumstantial evidence as discussed in Paul Callan’s Article on CNN where New York uses an example of seeing people board a train with umbrellas and wet clothes and leading to the conclusion that it was raining.
In a case where circumstantial evidence is the sole proof, the jury instruction must be careful to prevent the jury from allowing the charge to be proven based on assumptions and speculation and in filling in the gaps. The mailbox example permit the jury to infer it must have been the mail carrier when the Hernandez case does not contain such convincing circumstantial evidence.
The judge will then explain how the jury should apply circumstantial evidence. In Massachusetts there is no difference in probative value between direct and circumstantial evidence. In criminal prosecutions, circumstantial evidence is competent to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that one type of evidence is not necessarily more important or factual then the other.
The judge will instruct the jurors that they may only draw inferences from facts proved to them and that any inferences drawn must be reasonable and based on common sense and experience of life. These inferences do not have to be inevitable or without question but they must be reasonable and logical conclusion from the prior inference. The jury may not use conjecture or guesswork to choose between alternative inferences.
A good example of this type of inference piling is the gum evidence in the Hernandez trial. The prosecution introduced evidence that Hernandez purchased a certain type of gum and that same brand of gum was found in a rental car next to a shell casing with of the same caliber as the gun used to shoot Odin Lloyd. The shell casing had Hernandez’s DNA on it. This line of evidence requires jurors to infer that because he bought the same type of gum, the gum found in the car must be his and because that gum was found next to a shell casing of the same caliber gun used in the shooting, and because his DNA was on the casing that he therefore shot Odin Lloyd.
The defense has argued that it just as likely that the DNA casing from the bullet was transferred from the gum. The defense has also used this line of evidence as a tool to discredit the police’s investigation of Odin’s death. The defense was able to elicit testimony from the prosecution’s DNA witness that showed that
1. The bubblegum wasn’t subjected to DNA testing;
2. Hernandez’s DNA on the shell casing may have simply been transferred from the bubblegum and 3. The co-defendant’s DNA was never collected or tested against the gum or the casing
Collectively, this testimony raises a possible alternative to the prosecution’s theory.
In closing argument, the defense is likely to emphasize that while the jury can consider circumstantial evidence, they cannot use it to fill in for a lack of proof in the case and if there are multiple inferences permitted, than the fact has not been proven by circumstantial evidence and the Commonwealth has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt as required under the Constitution.