The North Carolina pattern jury instruction (civil) for "circumstantial evidence" tells us:
There are two types of evidence from which you may find the truth as to the facts of a case — direct and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence is the testimony of one who asserts actual knowledge of a fact, such as an eyewitness; circumstantial evidence is proof of a chain or group of facts and circumstances pointing to the existence or non-existence of certain facts. The law makes no distinction between the weight to be given to either direct or circumstantial evidence. Nor is a greater degree of certainty required of circumstantial evidence than of direct evidence. The law simply requires the party having the burden of proof on a particular issue to satisfy the jury as to that issue by the greater weight of all the evidence in the case.
In the case of Timothy Helms, a North Carolina prison inmate formerly held at the Alexander Correctional Institute, there is a "chain or group of facts and circumstances" pointing to a scenario in which Helms may have been beaten to within an inch of his life by prison guards and left a quadriplegic.
Yet the government of North Carolina, which is a great fan of circumstantial evidence when it comes to sending people like Timothy Helms to prison in the first place, doesn't seem to recognize the concept where its own employees are concerned.
Timothy Helms is not someone you'd want to meet socially. He's a repeat drunk driver serving a life sentence for killing someone while driving drunk. He has a terrible prison discipline record (which the State would like you to know all about), and, last August, set a fire in his cell. That fire set in motion a chain of events which left Helms paralyzed from the neck down.
This is the chain of events:
On August 3, 2008, at the Alexander Correctional Institution, Helms sets fire to bedding in his cell. Guards remove Helms from the cell, which is always under video surveillance, and take him to another room in the prison, where there appears to be no video equipment.
For 22 minutes, Helms is held in that room, while up to five guards are shown (on exterior cameras) paying him a visit.
Then prison medical personnel are shown entering the room. Six minutes later, Helms is hustled out, presumably to the infirmary, supported by guards.
The next day, Helms is taken to a civilian hospital, where CT scans show multiple skull fractures and intracranial bleeding. Helms tells doctors that he was beaten with billy clubs. His doctor opines that Helms's injuries are indeed consistent with blunt force trauma from multiple billy club blows.
Flash forward to today: Now Helms is confined to a prison hospital bed, probably forever, as a quadriplegic. The local prosecutor, and the Secretary of Corrections, have concluded that there was no wrongdoing on August 3 by anyone except Helms himself.
Their conclusion? Helms just had a bad fall. It could have happened to anyone. The videotape proves that Helms wasn't beaten. If Helms had been beaten, it would be on the video.
Well, except for that 22 minute gap in which Helms is confined to a room with five correctional officers, and no video. That must have been when Helms suffered his fall, since the fall isn't captured on video either.
And a funny fall it must have been. I don't know much, but I do know a bit about the biomechanics of injuries caused by falls. The skull is a hard set of bones. It takes a hell of a fall to fracture it. As for fracturing one's skull multiple times, well, it's difficult to see how a man in Timothy Helms's circumstances, confined to a small room with five people around him, could have fallen again and again and again, hard enough each time to fracture his skull.
Of course it's possible that Timothy Helms just has a very thin skull. Anything's possible.
But the law doesn't concern itself with what's possible. It concerns itself with what's likely beyond reasonable doubt or (since no charges will be filed in this case) what's more likely than not the truth.
As for that 22 minute gap, with five officers and one inmate confined to a small room with no video, and the medical reports concerning Helms's injuries, I suppose that's just circumstantial evidence. Funny that prosecutors and the state aren't familiar with the concept.
Timothy Helms's case has been reported on extensively by the Raleigh News & Observer, a fine paper that's seen better days due to the newspaper publishing industry crash. The N & O's reporting on Helms, which has asked a number questions that don't seem to have occurred to the government, has been outstanding and shows that even a struggling newspaper can still put together good investigative reporting, given the will.