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Circumstantial evidence is defined as follows:
Circumstantial evidence is best explained by saying what it is not - it is not direct evidence from a witness who saw or heard something. Circumstantial evidence is a fact that can be used to infer another fact.
Indirect evidence that implies something occurred but doesn't directly prove it; proof of one or more facts from which one can find another fact; proof of a chain of facts and circumstances indicating that the person is either guilty or not guilty.
With regard to Tom, there is evidence that Mayella was assaulted. There is evidence that Tom was at Mayella's home the same day that she was assaulted and at something close to the same time. However, there is no direct evidence that links Tom to the assault (outside of Mayella's testimony and the testimony of her father, both of which are suspect)
Actually, circumstantial evidence can be both something you see or hear as well as something you can touch. For example, if the defendant in a case owns a gun and that gun was used to kill someone, then it is circumstantial evidence. It infers that the defendant killed the victim but doesn't prove it.
If someone sees the defendant shoot the victim, that is direct evidence.
Usually circumstantial evidence is grouped together to be stronger as one or two pieces of it are usually not sufficient to convict someone.
In Tom's case, all of the evidence is circumstantial but it isn't enough to actually convict him. It is the prejudice of the community and the desire to convict him rather than to find the truth that allows the use of that circumstantial evidence to form the basis of his conviction.
Circumstantial evidence is evidence that you can't see or touch, and is frequently based on what a witness says. For example, it's NOT dna, blood, a weapon, etc.; it IS "he was in the area," "He is the same height at the suspect," or "She talked about doing it."
In Tom's case, the circumstantial evidence is just his location and race. Atticus thoroughly trounces the circumstantial evidence against Tom, by noting that the bruises could not have been made by him, as he has no use of that one arm
It can serve as indirect evidence. There was enough evidence to prove that Mayella was assaulted and beat that day, but outside the scheming town that holds racial prejudices and the account of Mayella and her father, there is no proof that Tom was truly the offender and causd Mayella harm.
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