Criminal Defense

The Difference Between Direct vs. Circumstantial Evidence

October 18, 2017 by Mikel Rastegar in Criminal Defense  Rights   Leave a Comment
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The Burden of Proof

In Criminal Law, the ‘People’ represented by the District Attorney must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction of the crime.

The prosecution must divulge to the criminal defense attorney all relevant discovery material well in advance, including the evidence they intend to bring against the defendant. This evidence can either be direct or circumstantial.

Circumstantial Evidence

Circumstantial evidence is ‘evidence’ that relies on an inference (steps of reasoning or speculation) to connect it to a conclusion of fact. If there is no direct evidence to accompany circumstantial evidence, then there are multiple explanations of what might have happened at the scene of a crime.

If there are multiple pieces of circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution, then the combined circumstantial evidence can favor one explanation over another, making the case stronger but not always absolute.

Example of Circumstantial Evidence:

The defendant was accused of stealing a diamond necklace from a jewelry store. It was not caught on camera.

  • Evidence of the defendant’s fingerprints were at the scene of the crime
  • The defendant was seen running out of the jewelry store
  • A woman saw the defendant carrying a small bag while running down the street
  • When the defendant was arrested later that day, he had $3000 cash on him

While all of these circumstances certainly look suspicious, there could be more than one explanation as to why these events occurred. Each one, and all of them combined are not a criminal act or indicative of a crime.

Direct Evidence

Direct evidence is evidence that directly connects the defendant with the crime he or she are charged with, without any inference (steps of reasoning or speculation) required. Direct evidence itself creates the single inference that supports the assumption of truth needed to convict a defendant of a crime.

In terms of testimony, a reliable witness testifying that they saw the defendant commit the crime is considered direct evidence. It should be noted that while witness testimony is strong, there are variations in the way people perceive factual events and can therefore be challenged, especially in instances of a single witness.

Example of Direct Evidence:

The defendant was accused of stealing a diamond necklace from a jewelry store. It was caught on camera.

  • Security footage clearly shows the defendant reaching behind the counter and grabbing a necklace
  • The defendant was seen by two witnesses (a customer and employee) taking the necklace
  • The defendant was caught trying to sell the necklace to another jewelry store
  • The defendant admits to the police that he took the necklace

Even just one of these pieces of evidence is likely enough to convict the defendant, and all of this evidence combined is what is called a ‘slam dunk’ or ‘open shut case’. The best the defendant can do is retain a lawyer to get the least impactful punishment for the crime that he committed.

How The Evidence is Used in Court

Evidence between the prosecution and the defense is first shared through a process called ‘discovery‘.

There is a misconception that circumstantial evidence is not admissible, but in reality the prosecution often may pile a lot of circumstantial evidence against the defendant to lay a foundation of belief, and combine it with a single flimsy piece of ‘direct evidence’.

All of this evidence can be thoughtfully challenged by a seasoned defense attorney, and the case can be chipped away and eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence. If you do not have a proper criminal defense attorney, you may be convicted based on flimsy evidence and not even know it.

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Seppi Esfandi is an expert in Criminal Law who has over 17 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.

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