Clients often ask us how it’s possible for the State’s Attorney to convince a Judge that they’re guilty of a crime when there isn’t any “real proof”. When people ask this question, what they’re usually really asking is whether it’s possible to convict a person when there’s no video evidence that can 100% prove that they did something illegal.
What Does “Proof” of a Crime Really Mean?
For the purposes of a trial in court, proof that a crime was committed basically means any evidence that tends to demonstrate or make it more likely than not that the person accused is guilty. It can be virtually anything. It can be a fingerprint, a written letter, a text, lipstick on a napkin, a torn shirt, a flat tire, a picture of a bruise, or a broken watch. Depending on what the person is charged with, if a judge or jury believes that this thing makes it more likely than not that the defendant committed the crime, then it can be considered evidence or “proof” of a crime.
What is “Circumstantial Evidence”?
The kinds of things mentioned above are often called “circumstantial evidence”, because although they tend to point to the guilt of the accused, there still may be some other reasonable explanation for them. For instance, although a picture of a victim’s bruise may be circumstantial evidence that the defendant committed a battery, maybe the bruise was from some other injury. Or even though the victim’s tires were slashed in her driveway just minutes after she and the defendant had a serious argument and it sure seems like he must have committed this criminal damage to property, it’s still just considered circumstantial evidence, unless someone actually saw him commit the crime. That’s because it’s still possible that the tires may have been damaged by another person entirely.
How Can I be Convicted Based Only upon Circumstantial Evidence?
On television, they make it sound like circumstantial evidence is “bad” evidence and that the only “real” evidence is a video recording or direct eyewitness testimony of someone who saw the crime getting committed. This is not entirely true. Most people who are convicted of crimes are found guilty based upon circumstantial evidence or what is commonly referred to as a “he said she said” type of case. It’s actually very unusual for direct proof in the way of a video recording of the event to exist. In those types of cases, where the evidence is solid and indisputable, many defendants will negotiate a plea agreement, rather than take part in a trial that they seem likely to lose.
But in cases where it’s just one person’s word against the other, or where the only proof is circumstantial, it’s up to the judge or the jury to properly weigh the evidence and to determine whether this evidence is really proof of anything or not.
So, the Prosecutor Doesn’t Have to Have Video to Convict Me?
That’s true. Consider this: People have been accusing other people of doing bad things to each other ever since the first caveman stole another caveman’s rocks. Thousands and thousands of years later, laws were first enacted to punish those who did bad things to each other. As a result, people have been getting charged with such crimes in America for nearly 250 years. –And of those defendants, many have been convicted, sent to jail, or even executed.
But the wide use of video recordings has only been available for less than 50 years. If video was necessary for a conviction, then no one would have ever been found guilty in this country until the 1970s. Clearly, that hasn’t been the case.
What About Police Video?
Body Worn Cameras (known as bodycams) and dash mounted police video cameras in squad cars are a different matter though. As discussed above, there’s never an actual requirement that video evidence must exist in order for a court to find a defendant guilty, in Chicago or anywhere in Illinois. But there are legal rules that relate to the existence and preservation of police video.
For instance, if it can be determined that police video of an arrest or investigation existed, but was later erased by the police, a criminal attorney can file a motion to “bar” (meaning to prevent) the prosecution or State’s Attorney from using other evidence or testimony about those events at trial. When a motion of this sort is granted by the Judge, it can often result in a finding of not guilty at trial.
The same holds true for bodycam footage; if it existed and the police allowed it to be erased, that’s generally good for the defendant. But of even greater importance in Illinois is that a recently passed law requires that all police departments in the State, including Chicago, must slowly phase in the mandatory use of bodycams by the year 2025. Especially when bodycams first came out, only some police departments were able to afford them due to the high cost of the equipment. This new law however, requires that every police department soon have them in use, as the value of video evidence can’t be disputed.
Speak to an Experienced Criminal Attorney
Whether the video shows police misconduct, or whether it shows something that’s not good for the defendant, there’s no dispute that video evidence, when it exists, is of great value. It’s been said that lawyers, police, witnesses and defendants can talk all they want in court, but judges and juries will always believe their eyes.
For more than 30 years, the experienced Chicago criminal defense attorneys at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC has been helping people charged with traffic and criminal cases, from petty offenses to misdemeanors to the most serious of felony crimes. You can reach our offices 24 hours a day, seven days a week and arrange to speak about your case in complete confidence. We can be reached at (312) 644-0444.