Direct evidence: definition, law, and examples
What is direct evidence?
Chances are, you’ve heard the word “evidence” a lot. Perhaps you have found yourself engrossed in a crime television drama. Or maybe you’ve served on a jury. Regardless of your familiarity with the criminal justice system, you may be surprised to learn that not all forms of evidence are created equal.
The term direct evidence refers to any piece of evidence that stands alone to prove a claim. In other words, it provides direct proof of a fact and does not require any kind of inference. Eyewitness testimony is the most common form of direct evidence likely to be presented in a criminal trial. When a witness relates something that he directly observed or experienced, he is offering direct evidence of an event.
Circumstantial evidence , on the other hand, is a set of facts that, when taken together, leads to a desired conclusion. Unlike direct evidence, circumstantial evidence is not isolated; requires the use of logical reasoning to prove a fact. Forensic evidence, such as a pattern of blood splatters on a wall, is a good example of circumstantial evidence; it requires the use of deductive reasoning to connect a suspect to a crime because evidence alone proves nothing. What Is Direct Evidence In Law?
Sometimes witnesses offer testimony that serves as circumstantial evidence of a fact. An example of this would be a witness who saw a suspect running from a crime scene. Although the witness did not actually see a crime being committed, their testimony can be used to create an inference that the suspect was involved in a crime.
Consider the following example that illustrates the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence. A hunter is taking a walk in the snowy forest. When he reaches a clearing, he watches as a rabbit crashes into a hollow log. A second hunter enters the clearing and asks the first hunter if a rabbit has passed. The hunter’s observation, the rabbit crashing into the log, is an example of direct evidence.
Now let’s say that the first hunter, upon reaching the clearing, does not see the rabbit, but he does see rabbit tracks leading to the log. When the second hunter shows up and asks if a rabbit has passed, the first hunter can only provide circumstantial evidence of the rabbit (the tracks) rather than direct evidence (seeing the rabbit in person).
Laws governing the use of direct evidence
Like most laws, the rules governing the use of direct evidence vary by jurisdiction. A common rule is that evidence must be relevant before it can be used in a trial. This means that the evidence must be related to the case at trial.
Many states require that certain forms of direct evidence, such as the actual contract signed in a contract dispute, must be properly notarized before it can be shown to a jury. In other words, there must be some proof that the evidence really is what the person admitting the evidence says it is. This is easier than you think. Typically, all that authentication requires is witness testimony to attest that the evidence is authentic.
Almost all states prohibit the use of direct evidence of other crimes or wrongdoing against a defendant. This is known as evidence of character. Character evidence is generally inadmissible as proof that the defendant is merely criminally prone.
With direct evidence, especially eyewitness testimony, it is often necessary to show that the witness is reliable or credible. This may require asking a series of questions to show that the witness is truthful. Physical limitations, such as poor vision, can be used against the witness to discredit their testimony.
Examples in the courtroom
As mentioned earlier in the lesson, the most common form of direct evidence is eyewitness testimony. Consider the following not-so-true story: Carl Criminal is on trial for attempted murder. The prosecutor calls Wanda Witness to the stand. Wanda explains that she was walking her dog around 11 p.m. when she heard screaming coming from a nearby alley.
As Wanda poked her head around the corner to look down the alley, she noticed a tall, one-legged man pointing a small pistol at a man wearing a red baseball cap. Startled, she turned and ran. Wanda testified that she heard the sound of a gunshot as she reached the corner of the street. What part of Wanda’s testimony is direct evidence?
Wanda’s testimony that she saw the one-legged man pointing a gun at the man in the red baseball cap is direct evidence. What Wanda saw does not require any level of inference to make sense to a jury. Carl, who only has one leg, is easily drawn into this scenario; there is direct evidence that he, or someone who looked very much like him, pulled a gun on the man in the hat.
What about Wanda’s testimony about the sound of the gunshot? Is that direct evidence? Because Wanda did not directly observe the one-legged man firing the gun, testimony that she heard the sound of a gunshot is circumstantial evidence. While it’s strong evidence against Carl, it’s not proof that she shot the man. A second gunman could have shown up after Wanda walked away, for example. The jury must use logical reasoning and deduction to connect the sound of the gunshot to Wanda’s observation of the man with one leg holding the gun.
Direct evidence is direct proof of a fact that does not require any kind of inference for its understanding. Direct evidence differs from circumstantial evidence, which requires the use of deduction and reasoning to connect a set of facts in order to reach a conclusion. In the context of criminal law, the most common form of direct evidence is eyewitness testimony, although there are many examples of direct evidence. A party attempting to admit direct evidence must adhere to the strict laws of evidence in any given jurisdiction.