When is the Trial Court Required to Give the Logan Circumstantial Evidence Instruction?

When the defendant requests it, a trial court must give the circumstantial evidence charge from the case State v. Logan.

Although Logan was decided in 2013, more than eight years ago, some trial judges are still refusing to read Logan’s circumstantial evidence jury instruction to jurors.

For example, last year, the SC Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction in State v. Herndon because the trial court refused to give a Logan charge, the SC Court of Appeals reversed a first degree CSC with a minor conviction in State v. Dent, and the most recent example is State v. Sanchez, a SC Court of Appeals case that was published today.

Why does it matter? What do we mean by circumstantial evidence, and when are trial courts required to read a “Logan charge” to the jurors?

What is Circumstantial Evidence?

There are two types of evidence in criminal cases – direct evidence and indirect evidence. “Circumstantial” means indirect evidence.

You may have heard someone say, “well, that’s just circumstantial…” The public’s perception of circumstantial evidence as bad evidence is justified – it can only suggest or imply a person’s guilt, and, therefore, is more likely to result in a wrong decision.

For example, if you see footprints in a muddy field near a crime scene, that is evidence that someone walked through the mud there and recently – but was it the defendant?

On the other hand, if there is an eyewitness who saw the defendant escaping the crime scene through the muddy field, that is direct evidence that is more persuasive and less likely to result in a wrongful conviction.

Indirect evidence can be critical to a prosecution, and it can be sufficient to convict a person, but only when there are multiple pieces of circumstantial evidence that are consistent and that point conclusively to the defendant’s guilt.

Why is the Logan Charge Important?

Circumstantial evidence is admissible and can be the basis of a conviction, but it is much more likely to result in mistakes. This is why it is critical that the court’s instructions to jurors point out the dangers of relying solely on circumstantial evidence.

At the end of a trial, the judge will read “jury instructions” to the jurors that explain the law that the jurors must apply to the facts that they have heard during the trial. One of those jury instructions explains the relative importance of direct evidence and indirect evidence.

Pre-Logan, those instructions elevated circumstantial evidence to the same level of trustworthiness as direct evidence – a falsehood that can result in wrongful convictions when jurors convict a person solely based on circumstantial evidence that is subject to multiple interpretations.

Logan fixed this by adding some critical language to the jury instruction:

…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.

Circumstantial evidence is dangerous because it is often subject to multiple interpretations – the Logan charge clarifies that 1) it is okay for the state to rely on circumstantial evidence, but 2) the state’s circumstantial evidence must be consistent and must “point conclusively to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.”

When are Courts Required to Give the “Logan Charge?”

A trial court is required to give the Logan charge when:

  1. The defendant asks for it – if the defendant doesn’t request it, they cannot ask for reversal on appeal for the trial court’s failure to give it, and
  2. The case is “based in whole or part on circumstantial evidence.”

On appeal, the courts will apply a harmless error analysis – when there is little or no physical evidence in a case, and the prosecution relies on circumstantial evidence to prove their case, it is not harmless error for the trial court to refuse to give the Logan instruction.

For example, in State v. Sanchez, the defendant was charged with trafficking heroin based on a traffic stop where the officers searched the defendant’s car and discovered a hidden compartment containing the drugs.

The evidence of the defendant’s knowledge of the drugs (in a case of “constructive possession,” the state must prove both 1) knowledge and 2) the ability to control the drugs) was circumstantial – the police did not investigate the person who had recently sold the vehicle to the defendant, did not conduct tests or fingerprint analysis on the hidden compartment, and there was no direct evidence that the defendant knew the drugs were there.

The circumstantial evidence that was presented may have been enough to convict the defendant if there was sufficient evidence for the jurors to conclude she knew about the drugs, but the jurors were not told that “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.”

When the defense requests a Logan instruction, the prosecution’s case is based on circumstantial evidence, and the trial court refuses to give the instruction, the conviction is likely to be reversed on appeal.

Criminal Defense Lawyers in Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone represents people charged with crimes in SC state and federal courts.

If you have been charged with a crime or believe that you are under investigation in the Charleston, Georgetown, or Myrtle Beach areas of SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send an email to schedule a free consultation.