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I would mention that my first introduction to anyone “commenting” on whether the evidence in a criminal case was circumstantial was from watching Perry Mason. But I do not want to date myself, so I will not. But seriously, anyone who watched a courtroom drama on TV or in the theatre has heard the attorneys suggest, argue, or complain that the damning evidence is “circumstantial” and, therefore, apparently deficient in some way. What is circumstantial evidence? How is it different from direct evidence?
For prosecutors, succeeding in a criminal trial is based on possessing the evidence to convict. A prosecutor builds its case based on the evidence it possesses. This evidence may be direct or circumstantial. Evidence of a crime is usually circumstantial since there may be little or no direct evidence of the crime in possession of the prosecution.
If the testimony of witnesses is credible, prosecutors may gain a conviction based on direct evidence and nothing else. However, in many cases, there is some circumstantial evidence that supports the direct evidence.
Direct evidence is evidence that directly proves a fact in issue – if believed. In this context, “direct” means that a juror does not have to make any inferences or presumptions related to proof. A juror can conclude the occurrence of the fact asserted simply by believing a witness. Thus, direct evidence often takes the form of witness testimony based on eyewitness accounts.
Direct evidence may also be evidence that is based on facts known to be true to the victim or police. Direct evidence would exist if the police or another witness personally observe the crime, or the victim personally knew the perpetrator of the crime.
Circumstantial evidence is indirect evidence that may infer the commission of a crime as it does not directly prove a key fact. It is typically weaker than direct evidence. Circumstantial evidence proves another fact from which a person may make a reasonable inference that a key fact occurred. Circumstantial evidence must always be carefully examined for reliability and reasonableness.
The probative value of any type of evidence depends primarily on the facts of a particular case. Thus, direct evidence may not always be given greater weight than circumstantial evidence. Often, especially when in the form of eyewitness testimony, direct evidence may have a greater effect on a case’s outcome.
However, testimony by a witness that she saw the accused commit the crime may be unreliable if a criminal defense attorney demonstrates flaws in memory or bias. In contrast, cases, where the prosecution possesses a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence, may be stronger and have a greater likelihood of conviction.
Not all evidence is admissible in a court of law. The rules of evidence present challenges to both judges and lawyers. John Patrick Dolan is a California State Bar Certified Specialist in Criminal Law, the highest achievement awarded by the State Bar of California to attorneys in the field of criminal law. The advice, guidance, and representation of experienced criminal defense counsel may be crucial to achieving the best possible result in any criminal matter. John Patrick Dolan has forty years of criminal defense experience. Contact Dolan Law Offices today at 760-775-3739 or 562-824-4007 to discuss your situation or find out more online here.