It might come as a surprise that TV and movies haven’t been entirely accurate and truthful in how they portray circumstantial evidence. Shocking, we know.
There are two different movies called Circumstantial Evidence which — spoiler alert — both see an innocent man sent to jail based on the titular “proof.”
Circumstantial evidence can make for compelling proof in the right context, and it was the deciding factor in an Ontario voyeurism case.
In October 2014, Muamba Mufuta appealed what he called an “unreasonable” conviction for voyeurism.
Why unreasonable? His conviction was essentially based on a pop bottle.
Here’s the story:
In 2011, a female restaurant employee saw a man peering at her from a stall in the women’s washroom. However, she fled the stall in fear and could only give the most cursory description: a black man with a shaved head.
After the incident, police found an opened pop bottle in the stall the suspect occupied. Forensic tests found Mufuta’s DNA on the bottle and showed that he was the last person to drink from it.
That’s it for evidence: a very generic description and DNA on a bottle.
That certainly fits the notion of circumstantial (a.k.a. indirect) evidence, but it was nonetheless strong enough to prove the case against Mufuta. The judge concluded that there were only three possible explanations for the bottle in the stall.
- Mufuta was in the stall at the time of the incident, so was the voyeur;
- He had been in the stall earlier that day and left it behind; or
- Someone matching his description brought the bottle into the washroom and left it there.
The judge dismissed the latter two as “speculative, unlikely and totally lacking in evidentiary support,” meaning the first — that Mufuta was the voyeur — was the only rational conclusion.
Mufuta appealed, but the pop-bottle evidence still led to a reasonable inference of guilt.
That’s the role circumstantial evidence plays. It doesn’t prove something directly, the way that security camera footage of Mufuta might have, but it leads to reasonable deductions.
Convictions based on circumstantial evidence aren’t that rare and this wasn’t even the first time that someone’s been convicted based on a pop bottle. A beer bottle also proved a compelling piece of evidence in a 2009 criminal case.