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Imagine that there is a home care worker Alice who takes care of some great number of outpatients. Some significant proportion of them have reported thefts, although none of them suspect Alice. Since her patients are elderly and not particularly alert, they're not very useful as witnesses and in no single situation is there definitive proof that it is she that stole from them.

For the sake of this hypothetical, let's say that thefts in general are common in this area, but that Alice's patients are far more likely to be stolen from than others.

So for each individual crime there is reasonable doubt as to Alice's guilt, but the totality of the cases are such that it is extremely unlikely that she didn't commit at least several acts of theft (although we cannot say for certain which ones).

Is there a name for situations like these? And if it's not too broad of a question: how are they handled?

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  • This probably wouldn't stand up in a criminal trial, but may have merit in a civil one. See Preponderance of Evidence
    – Ron Beyer
    Oct 23, 2020 at 22:43
  • @Ron when you mention a civil trial: do you mean that the group of potential victims could join together as a class to sue her? Is there no way (under any jurisdiction) to do something similar for criminal prosecutions?
    – Rojan
    Oct 23, 2020 at 23:05
  • It doesn't have to be a class, but that is one scenario. Typically civil trials seek to make one party "whole" from the actions of another. There is a much lower burden of proof in a civil trial because there are no criminal consequences, usually just financial or specific performance.
    – Ron Beyer
    Oct 23, 2020 at 23:16
  • 2
    Not an answer, and not a legal term, but "cancer cluster" seems relevant here. Oct 24, 2020 at 1:17
  • 4
    Perhaps reasonable suspicion? Grounds enough for the police to start an investigation, not enough by itself to convict if the investigation doesn't produce better evidence?
    – o.m.
    Oct 24, 2020 at 9:59

2 Answers 2

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Is there a name for situations like these?

Yes: Circumstantial evidence.

In R v Xu, Justice Katz explains how it works:

[163] In a circumstantial case, the Court must look to the combined effect of a number of independent items of evidence when considering each charge. While each separate piece of evidence must be assessed as part of the inquiry, the ultimate verdict on each charge will turn on an assessment of all items of evidence viewed in combination. The underlying principle is that the probative value of a number of items of evidence is greater in combination than the sum of the parts. The analogy that is often drawn is that of a rope. Any one strand of the rope may not support a particular weight, but the combined strands are sufficient to do so. The logic that underpins a circumstantial case is that the defendant is either guilty or is the victim of an implausible, unlikely series of coincidences.

[164] When assessing the evidence in a circumstantial case, it is not sufficient to evaluate each separate strand of evidence in isolation and then stop. Having considered each strand of evidence separately, it is necessary for the decision-maker to then stand back and assess the cumulative effect of all of the different strands of evidence. Consideration of the onus and standard of proof only occurs at the second stage of the process. The individual strands of evidence do not have to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. The onus and standard of proof only comes into play once the combined weight of all of the strands of evidence is being considered.

If Alice is the only care worker for the patients who have reported theft, the cumulative effect of the totality of the individual strands of evidence could well be enough to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt (whereas none of the strands alone could be sufficient).

But if there are other care workers who could do that, the probability of guilt slashes down proportionally, so no real prospect for Alice to be convicted.

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  • 4
    Evil Eve would obviously only steal on days when Alice is present.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 6, 2020 at 15:03
  • @Greendrake thank you so much for the answer and the source!
    – Rojan
    Nov 6, 2020 at 16:36
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I will disagree with @GreenDrake's circumstantial evidence answer. Yes, you can totally be convicted on it alone, but to even be charged for a crime, you need to be charged for a specific crime. Alice isn't being charged for a theft, she's being charged for e.g. the theft of Mrs. Doe's wallet on April 1, 2022. If there's other evidence, even circumstantial evidence (e.g. Alice went to a casino straight after leaving Mrs. Doe), then an expert witness statistician could give testimony, but if there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever linking Alice to a specific crime, any non asleep defense attorney will get the charge summarily dismissed.

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    Needless to say, if five people all die after visiting Mr. X's house and there's absolutely zero incriminating evidence in all five cases, I'm not setting foot in that house.
    – DKNguyen
    May 19, 2022 at 21:33
  • In this case it will be a representative charge, or an equivalent depending on the jurisdiction.
    – Greendrake
    May 20, 2022 at 0:04
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    @Greendrake ah, I'm displaying classic implicit US centricity. Yeah, I can totally believe that that's possible in other countries legal systems, but not in the US federal law, or any state law, from what I've been able to find.
    – Eugene
    May 20, 2022 at 18:36

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