“Direct evidence” and “circumstantial evidence” may seem like lawyers’ jargon, but if you’re involved in a lawsuit, the distinction is important to the outcome of your case. At trial, your lawyer will present evidence—witness testimony, documents, or other objects—to try to prove the facts necessary to win your case. However, not all evidence is equal, or equally allowed to be presented at trial.
This article discusses two “flavors” of evidence –direct and circumstantial—but others, such as character evidence, are also relevant in the courtroom.
Direct evidence is based on what a witness has personally observed, and tends to prove (or disprove) an alleged fact. Here’s an example: Paul is suing Dana, the defendant, for allegedly smashing Paul’s red fence with Dana’s car.
Paul’s lawyer calls Wanda as a witness, who testifies that she saw Dana drive into Paul’s fence. This is direct evidence because it is something that Wanda personally saw happen, and if Wanda is telling the truth, tends to prove Paul’s claim that Dana smashed his fence.
By contrast, circumstantial evidence (sometimes also called “indirect evidence”) is evidence that can be used, by applying logic and common sense, to infer a fact. The time-worn example is the empty cookie jar and the nearby child with cookie crumbs on his face and hands. Though no one saw the child eat the cookies, the condition of his face and hands are circumstantial evidence that can be used to infer that the child ate the cookies. Likewise, Wanda could testify that she heard a crash, ran outside to see Paul’s fence in pieces, and later that day saw Dana’s car parked a few blocks away with dents and red paint on the fender. The jury could use all of this evidence to support a decision that Dana must have smashed the fence.
Of course, the jury is not obligated to believe any evidence, whether direct or circumstantial. They are instructed to evaluate the trustworthiness of all testimony, and its sufficiency. For example, even direct evidence from Wanda (testifying that she saw Dana’s car hit the fence) could be disbelieved if the jury heard other evidence that suggested she was lying, or not in a position to clearly see the accident. Likewise, if she were to offer only circumstantial evidence, as noted above, they might conclude that there was not enough to support an inference that Dana hit the fence (as might happen if Dana offered a different explanation of how her car came to be dented and colored with red paint).
Circumstantial evidence often plays a large role in criminal cases, in situations when there are no witnesses to the crime, or the people present cannot positively identify the defendant. For example, a burglary that happens when no one is home is a crime without a witness, but this doesn’t mean that the defendant cannot be convicted. The prosecution may be able to present enough circumstantial evidence to meet its “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof, by offering, for example, evidence that the defendant was observed “casing the joint” shortly before the intrusion and was arrested nearby shortly after the crime with items from the dwelling.
In rare situations, convictions cannot be based solely on circumstantial evidence alone. For example, in many states, perjury cannot be proved solely by circumstantial evidence. The prosecutor must present at least one witness who has direct knowledge of the facts that the defendant allegedly lied about under oath.
One of the benefits of hiring legal counsel is to have someone on your side who understands the complexity of court rules concerning evidence. If you are involved in a criminal case, speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney who practices in your geographical area. Only someone who knows the rules and how they’re applied in court can advise you on how your case is likely to be handled.