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How do Direct and Circumstantial Evidence Differ?

Nov 16, 2023 | Criminal Lawyer

If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama, you might have heard attorneys use the term “circumstantial” to describe a piece of evidence that is inherently unreliable and cannot be used in court to establish someone’s guilt. However, despite its relative unreliability, circumstantial evidence is admissible. 

Here is how to discern the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence, including an overview of when circumstantial evidence can be used in a criminal trial. 

Direct Evidence vs. Circumstantial Evidence 

Direct evidence is when an eyewitness testifies to something they have seen or know for a fact. It is direct because it is coming directly from their observation or knowledge.

Circumstantial evidence, by contrast, refers to evidence that must be inferred based on other facts or circumstances. Unlike direct evidence, a witness would have to connect the dots, so to speak, regarding the evidence.

Still confused? This terminology difference can be best illustrated by example.

Let’s say that there has been a hit-and-run accident. A bystander offers eyewitness testimony that she was on the corner and saw a car collide with another car and drive away. This witness testimony is direct evidence based on her personal observation and does not require anyone to make inferences or deductions. 

In the same scenario, let’s say there are no eyewitnesses who observed the collision, but there is evidence of skid marks, vehicle debris, and one of the driver’s license plates on the ground. These pieces of evidence are circumstantial because, together, they suggest a chain of events or “circumstances” that led to the conclusion that there was a collision and the driver left the scene. 

Why the “Type” of Evidence Matters 

There are well-defined rules of evidence both at the state and federal level to establish what evidence may be used for or against a party in both civil and criminal proceedings. 

Arguably, a criminal trial is a higher-stakes event because one’s freedom is at stake. Therefore, the burden of proof on the prosecution is to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” To ensure the fairness of the justice system, there are legal bounds that limit what evidence can be let in. 

A statement from a witness about what someone else said they saw is generally not admissible because it cannot be confirmed in a courtroom under oath. Suppose Witness 1 said something like, “I know that John Doe drove drunk that night because my sister Sarah told me she saw him drink five beers and get behind the wheel.” Unless Sarah is available to testify to what she saw (absent some legal exceptions), Witness 1’s testimony would not be allowed. 

The example above is referred to as hearsay evidence, and it is one of several types of evidence that may be presented in court. Classifying and identifying the precise type of evidence ensures that the parties’ rights are protected, and only admissible evidence is allowed to provide guilt or liability. 

What Forms of Evidence Are Allowable in Court? 

Despite the negative connotation of circumstantial evidence in pop culture, both direct and circumstantial evidence are acceptable ways of proving a fact in court. In short, a jury is permitted to weigh both direct and circumstantial evidence to prove the fact of the matter at hand or establish a defendant’s guilt. 

Contact an Experienced West Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney 

Even though circumstantial evidence may still be admissible, a West Virginia criminal defense attorney may be able to keep questionable circumstantial evidence out of court or limit its damaging effects at trial. For experienced legal help, contact Arnold & Bailey at 304-725-2002 to talk about your case.