SC Supreme Court Watch: New Circumstantial Evidence Jury Instruction

On August 14, 2013, in State v. Logan, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion Number 27296, our Supreme Court adopted the following circumstantial evidence jury instruction:

There are two types of evidence which are generally presented during a trial—direct evidence and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence directly proves the existence of a fact and does not require deduction. Circumstantial evidence is proof of a chain of facts and circumstances indicating the existence of a fact.

Crimes may be proven by circumstantial evidence. The law makes no distinction between the weight or value to be given to either direct or circumstantial evidence, however, to the extent the State relies on circumstantial evidence, all of the circumstances must be consistent with each other, and when taken together, point conclusively to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. If these circumstances merely portray the defendant’s behavior as suspicious, the proof has failed.

The State has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden rests with the State regardless of whether the State relies on direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, or some combination of the two.

Logan revives some of the language from the traditional circumstantial evidence instruction based on State v. Edwards, 298 S.C. 272, 379 S.E.2d 888 (1989).  The Logan instruction, however, does not replace the jury instruction approved in State v. Grippon, 327 S.C. 79, 489 S.E.2d 462 (1997) and State v. Cherry, 361 S.C. 588, 606 S.E.2d 475 (2004).  Logan, rather, “modif[ies] Grippon and Cherry to allow the additional language provided above if requested by a defendant.”  A careful criminal defense lawyer, therefore, will request this instruction in appropriate cases.

Logan is instructive about the different roles for analyzing evidence of a trial judge considering a directed verdict motion and jurors deciding whether the state has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Logan additionally illustrates the importance of criminal defense lawyers not accepting the status quo.  Without an objection from Logan’s trial lawyer, the Court would not have had a reason to announce this decision.  A decision clarifying the circumstantial evidence charge was not a surprise.  Please click here to read a prior blog post, “SC Supreme Court Watch: Circumstantial Evidence Jury Instruction,” which observed that the Court might be poised to modify our state’s circumstantial evidence jury instruction.

Logan is the most recent case revealing differing philosophies within our Supreme Court regarding the circumstantial evidence jury instruction.  Logan, like Grippon and Cherry, is a three-two decision.

Click here to read the court opinion in State v. Logan.

About SC Supreme Court Watch:  SC Supreme Court Watch is a recurring series dedicated to identifying potentially significant criminal law issues pending before the Court and reporting administrative actions involving criminal law in our state.