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Direct vs. Circumstantial Evidence: Observation vs.

Inference

A trial is held to determine if a certain thing took place. In a criminal trial, the question is if the
defendant broke a law and should suffer penalties from a fine to a prison term. In a civil trial, the
question is if the plaintiff was harmed by the defendant and should pay the defendant damages.

These questions are decided by presenting evidence to a fact finder. In some situations this may be a
judge. In other situations it may be a jury. Evidence is presented to the fact finder by the testimony
of witnesses. The witnesses describe either their version of events or relate other relevant
information to assist the fact finder in determining a criminal defendants guilt or a civil defendants
liability.

Direct Evidence
Direct evidence is the simplest form of evidence to understand. Direct evidence is evidence of a fact
based on a witness's personal knowledge or observation of that fact. If the witness actually saw the
defendant stab the victim that is direct evidence; the stabbing is within the witnesss actual
experience. Whether the judge or jury, whose duty is to listen to the evidence and determine the
truth, believes the witness is a different issue regarding credibility, but does not change the nature
of the testimony as direct evidence.
Direct evidence has traditionally been described as eye witness testimony. In the modern age
photographs, video and audio recordings are also direct evidence. The recorded presentation of an
event can establish directly that the event took place.
Circumstantial Evidence
Circumstantial evidence is more complex. A witness did not see the stabbing above. The witness did
see the defendant go into the house carrying a knife. The witness heard a scream inside the house
and saw the defendant run out, not carrying the knife. The victim is later found inside with a knife in
her back. A reasonable inference is that the defendant stabbed the victim. Whether that fact is true
will determine if the defendant is guilty.
Circumstantial evidence is direct evidence of a fact which reasonably infers the existence or
nonexistence of another fact. Circumstantial evidence is not direct observation of a fact that is in
dispute. In the stabbing above, no one saw the victim stabbed, and the defendant said he did not do
it, but the eye witness saw things that leads to the conclusion that the man running out of the house
stabbed the victim. The witness testimony is circumstantial evidence.
Circumstantial evidence is a collection of facts that, when considered together, can be used to infer
a conclusion about something unknown. Circumstantial evidence is used to support a theory of a
sequence of events. The sum total of multiple pieces of corroborating evidence, each piece being
circumstantial alone, build an argument to support how a particular result came about. In civil and
criminal investigations, corroboration is often supplied by one or more expert witnesses who provide
forensic evidence.
Forensic Evidence
Forensic evidence is developed by the examination of physical items to provide inferences of other
facts and to recreate events. In traffic accident cases tire skid marks may be examined to determine
a cars direction and speed prior to a crash. Fingerprints at a scene indicate that a particular person
was present. All these types of evidence, presented by expert investigators, are kinds of
circumstantial evidence since each infers an event that was not observed by the witness.
Circumstantial Evidence in Criminal Law
One of the most important elements of proving a criminal case is the existence in the defendants
mind of criminal intent, known as mens rea. The fact that a defendant did something does not
explain his state of mind. Absent an admission by the defendant, a defendants state of mind must
always be proven by circumstantial evidence.
Admissibility of Evidence

Whether evidence an attorney seeks to present at trial is direct or circumstantial, there remains the
complex question of if the judge or jury deciding the case will even see or hear the evidence. This is
a question of "admissibility", in essence whether the evidence is reliable. Rules regarding this have
developed over hundreds of years and are found in the Federal Rules of Evidence. Most states have
built their own rules based upon the Federal Rules. Often information about an event exists, but
never gets to a courtroom because in the interests of fairness it has been determined unreliable.
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