Note – Chance of Rain: Rethinking Circumstantial Evidence Jury Instructions

Eugenée M. Heeter

Volume 64, Issue 2, 527-560

The treatment of circumstantial evidence has undergone a dramatic change over time, from a high level of scrutiny to widespread acceptance. Similarly, our understanding of direct evidence has evolved, as wrongful convictions have exposed the potential unreliability of eyewitnesses and confessions. In accordance with the changing views of each type of evidence, this Note identifies two distinct policy goals of circumstantial and direct evidence jury instructions. The first is to establish an equality of import between the two types of evidence, to combat juror bias that leads to the under or overvaluing of one type over the other. The second, which seems to be in conflict with the first, is to promote a higher level of care during jury deliberations, so that jurors do not casually make incorrect or unfounded factual inferences. However, these goals can be reconciled if we acknowledge that all kinds of evidence are highly probative, and subject to similar dangers from inference. By evaluating three different states’ circumstantial and direct evidence jury instructions for comprehensibility and effective advocacy of policy goals, this Note identifies what is done well and what diminishes the efficacy of the instruction, and then offers various solutions in the form of altered instructions. Ultimately, this Note concludes that the most effective solution is to create a new instruction that combats the dangers of inference, appeals to jurors’ appreciation of a reasonable alternative narrative, and eliminates the unnecessary distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence.

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