Getting Direct with Circumstantial Evidence: Nevels v. State (Miss. 2021)

Written by: Jaime Weida

To sustain a criminal conviction in Mississippi, the State must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but does the burden of proof change when the evidence is circumstantial instead of direct?  Before August 2021, it was clear that Mississippi courts assigned a higher burden of proof when dealing with circumstantial evidence by requiring special instructions that intensified the burden of proof.  However, the Mississippi Supreme Court overruled this previous case law requiring a higher burden of proof in circumstantial evidence cases in Nevels v. Mississippi.

For years, trial judges in Mississippi have struggled with applying different burdens of proof between direct and circumstantial evidence.  Some justices on the Mississippi Supreme Court have stated that “evidence is either direct or circumstantial [and] both types of evidence are entitled to the same weight and effect…”  On the other hand, other Mississippi Supreme Court justices have attached a higher burden of proof to circumstantial evidence.  For example, Justice Pierce noted in Burleson v. State, 166 So. 3d 499 (Miss. 2015) that the circumstantial evidence jury instruction suggests that the court holds the State to a higher burden of proof where the evidence is not direct.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has been critical of the confusion and inconsistency caused by the circumstantial evidence jury instruction for decades. The Court resolved this confusion when a criminal defendant, Johnny Nevels, appealed his conviction.

Summary of Nevels v. State of Mississippi

Johnny Nevels, a parolee, reported as directed by his parole officer and provided a urine sample, which the court required as a condition of his parole.  When he could not give the sample of urine needed, officers arrested him for failing to comply with his parole terms.  The officers conducted a pat-down and search, finding bullets and a set of car keys, which belonged to a Cadillac parked in an adjacent location.  While searching the Cadillac, officers found methamphetamine, amphetamines, and oxycodone inside. The vehicle was unregistered, but the police charged Nevels with drug possession because the officers found the keys on Nevels’s person.  On the scheduled day of trial, Nevels failed to appear.  Despite his absence, Nevels was still convicted and sentenced for the offenses.  Nevels appealed his convictions under the theory that his trial in absentia was improper and that he was entitled to the special jury instruction regarding circumstantial evidence.

In its majority opinion, the Mississippi Supreme Court addressed: (1) the circumstantial evidence jury instructions; and (2) the trial in absentia.  The main issue addressed by the court was the circumstantial evidence jury instruction.  Specifically, the court questioned the inconsistent application of an elevated burden of proof applied in past cases with circumstantial evidence.  This heightened scrutiny applied in both Moore v. State, 247 So. 3d 1198 (Miss. 2018) and Fisher v. State, 481 So. 2d 203 (Miss. 1985) required the jury to find guilt “to the exclusion of every reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence” rather than the standard burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The majority plainly stated that “[the Mississippi Supreme Court had] been speaking from both sides of its mouth” when addressing circumstantial evidence.  The majority acknowledged that the precedent in similar cases was under the doctrine of stare decisis but concluded that the use of the circumstantial evidence jury instruction was “manifestly wrong and mischievous,” and thus, the court should overrule it.   Because the precedent in Mississippi was conflicting, the majority relied upon over forty federal cases from various jurisdictions that prohibit the use of the circumstantial jury instruction to justify its holding.

This opinion expressly overruled Moore v. State, 247 So. 3d 1198 (Miss. 2018), Burleson v. State, 166 So. 3d 499 (Miss. 2015), Kirkwood v. State, 52 So. 3d 1184 (Miss. 2011), and Stringfellow v. State, 595 So. 2d 1320 (Miss. 1992).  Consequently, Mississippi state courts no longer require varying burdens of proof between direct and circumstantial evidence.

The Dissent

Justice Kitchens disagreed with the majority.  In a lengthy dissent, Justice Kitchens stated that the majority “disemboweled the doctrine stare decisis.”  Quoting United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kitchens warned the majority of the danger of overturning a well-established rule when the rule arguably was not mischievous nor detrimental to the public.  From Justice Kitchens’ view, the court went above and beyond what it should have.  Justice Kitchens explained that the purpose for the circumstantial evidence jury instruction was to “help ensure that a jury does not convict an innocent person.”  Justice Kitchens stated that the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected the push to overrule the circumstantial evidence jury instruction at least five times and criticized the majority for relying on purely persuasive authority to justify its decision.

Outcome/Where Are We Now?

As of August 19, 2021, defendants charged with crimes based on circumstantial evidence are no longer entitled to the circumstantial evidence jury instruction, which would advise the jury to consider the evidence with caution.  Instead, Mississippi state courts will now view circumstantial evidence through the same lens as direct evidence, likely changing the landscape of future criminal trials.